Yosef "Tommy" Lapid is a rarity in Israel politics. The 67-year-old leader of the Shinui party joined the political scene late in life after a successful career as a journalist at the Hebrew daily Maariv, a writer of travel guides, and a TV personality. In the 1990s, he became known for his public attacks on the powerful ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and his defense of the rights of Israel's secular majority.
Lapid has successfully used the growing resentment over religious coercion in Israel to join forces with veteran politician Avraham Poraz, one of the founders of Shinui, which in Hebrew means change. In what's now seen as a political coup, the two won a surprising six seats in the Knesset in 1999 elections. Polls now show that centrist, secular Shinui is slated to win some 16 seats to become the third-largest in the Knesset, after Likud and Labor, in elections on Jan. 28.
Lapid's goal is to help create a national-unity government that would be based solely on secular parties, excluding the ultra-Orthodox far right. BusinessWeek correspondent Neal Sandler met recently with Lapid to discuss the upcoming elections. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: Are you surprised by the growth in support for Shinui?
A: Initially our support came from those who have grown resentful of the ultra-Orthodox establishment. But in the past few weeks, we have benefited from the corruption scandals in the two major parties [Likud and Labor]. People are fed up with the ancien r?gime. A lot of Likud supporters have come over to our side. Polls have shown that we're the most popular party among the young voters.
Q: How are you faring among immigrant voters from the former Soviet Union?
A: We've seen a sharp increase in support from the immigrants. The immigrant parties are losing their grip, and many of their voters are turning to us as they support our centrist position and identify with many of our positions on religious and other issues.
Q: Shinui is viewed by many as a one-issue party, religious coercion. Doesn't that your appeal?
A: We're not only focused on the issue of religious coercion. Shinui views itself as the party of the middle class, which is bearing the brunt of the economic recession. We have clear positions on all major issues.
Q: Where does Shinui stand on the conflict with the Palestinians?
A: We support the construction of a security fence along the border between Israel and the West Bank. We're in favor of returning to the negotiating table, but not with Yasser Arafat. And we've openly called for the dismantling of remote Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Q: What kind of government do you envisage after the Jan. 28 elections?
A: Shinui supports a national-unity government. But unlike the past, we want the government to be made up of the three largest secular parties: Likud, Labor, and Shinui. I will not join a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox political parties.
Q: The Likud has never formed a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties. Why do you think they will do so after the Jan. 28 elections?
A: We hope that our strong showing will make us a pivotal party and will make it impossible for whoever wins the election to set up a government without Shinui.