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In 2003, after leading the Shinui party to a stunning 15-seat victory in the national elections, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid was hailed as "Israeli of the Year" by Jerusalem Post columnist Amotz Asa-El, who wrote: "The Lapid revolution combines a cultural common denominator among people fed up with haredi power, an economic call to the emancipation of a newly confident middle class, and an impatience with a political elite whose ideas about the Palestinians have all proven unworkable at best, disastrous at worst.
"Whether he and his colleagues manage to transform their success into a long-term political reality remains to be seen," Asa-El continued.
It certainly did. Unfortunately, not only did Lapid, who died Sunday at the age of 76, and his Shinui comrades fail to create "a long-term political reality" out of their victory, the party's failure in the 2006 ballot to gain even a single seat qualifies as perhaps the most spectacular flame-out in the history of Israeli politics.
So total was their almost entirely self-inflicted downfall that it has become conventional political wisdom to simply write off the rise and fall of Lapid's Shinui as one of those brief ballot-box phenomena, in which voters discontented with the two big parties faddishly flock to a relatively new smaller faction - such as the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash), Tsomet, the Center Party, and now perhaps the Gil Pensioners - which subsequently vanish from the political map without leaving much of a trace.
To some degree, the Shinui saga does fit those contours. And if that was indeed all there was to its story, Lapid could still lay claim to enough other significant achievements as a journalist, author, television personality, and one of the most colorful (and quotable) personalities in Israeli public life, to well deserve the attention given his passing this weekend.
But that assessment would give short shrift to the impact Shinui had during the relatively brief period in which, powered by Lapid's dynamic presence at the top of its list, it managed to make a major and perhaps lasting impact on the country's political and social landscape.
Whether, though, that influence was ultimately for the good or bad depends of course on where in that landscape one is positioned.
There is no arguing the point that it was Lapid who put Shinui on that map. Although the party's ideological roots as a secular-centrist faction based on European-style liberalism stretch back decades to Dash, by 1999 Shinui seemed headed for extinction after breaking off from Meretz and losing as its leader the distinguished academic Amnon Rubinstein.
It was genius on the part of the latter's colorless successor, Avraham Poraz, to recruit Lapid as the party's new head. Already popular with TV audiences for his fierce performances on the current affairs program Popolitika, Lapid seized on Shinui's existing secularist agenda, upped the ante by using his patented anti-haredi rhetoric in the party's election commercials, and unexpectedly gained it six Knesset seats.
Sitting in the opposition for the following four years, Lapid was able to effectively slash at the Barak and Sharon governments for their concessions to the religious parties, especially the generous funding of yeshivot, expansive child allowances for large families and continued expansion of religious draft deferments. And because Lapid had expressed skepticism over the Oslo Process and criticism over the settlement enterprise, he was able to credibly position his party in the political center after the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000.
In 2003 Shinui seized on widespread dissatisfaction with Likud and Labor to emerge from that year's election as the third biggest faction in the Knesset. Flexing its new-found political muscle in coalition talks, it managed to get then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to form a coalition that left out haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, itself a considerable political achievement.
Joining the government meant Shinui temporarily forsaking some of its key positions, especially introduction of civil marriage and an end to religious draft-deferments (or at least repeal of the Tal Law). Although Lapid was criticized for these compromises, he felt Shinui could bring about more change working on the inside.
And in fact it did so, it two major ways. The first came in its support for an economic reform program that included major cutbacks in the child allowance program that encouraged large haredi families by dramatically increasing welfare payments for each successive offspring.
The second came in the support the party provided Sharon's Gaza disengagement both from within the government, and even after it left the coalition in 2004 in protest of yeshivot funding.
Lapid had no doubt these two issues were his major legacy as Shinui leader, writing in the Post in 2005: "The economic reform, which saved Israel's economy, restored growth and lowered unemployment, was made possible solely thanks to the support provided by the Shinui party when it served as the senior coalition partner. Ask former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu - he'll tell you.
"And while it is true that the disengagement from Gaza came into being thanks to prime minister Ariel Sharon, it was born only after I gave Sharon an ultimatum: Shinui would leave the government within three weeks if he did not propose a plan to advance the peace process.
"And even after we quit the government, we continued to vote from the opposition in favor of the disengagement because without us, Sharon would not have had enough votes - due to the mutiny in his own Likud party. So, even if we were only partners to these two cardinal accomplishments, without us they would never have gotten off the drawing board."
Lapid also won high marks from most observers during his brief tenure as justice minister, proving himself a staunch defender of the legal system and judiciary's independence from untoward political influence.
Alas, Lapid's Shinui colleagues handled their own success less well. Poraz stoked unnecessary controversy with some of his grandstanding as interior minister. Much worse was the behavior of Yosef Paritzky, pushed out in disgrace following revelations that he had asked a private detective to dig for material he could use to usurp Poraz's party leadership - a devastating blow for a party that had pledged to fight corruption and set new standards for clean governance.
Lapid, so effective a spokesman for Shinui, proved unable, or uninterested, to administer his own troops. He failed to recruit a prominently suitable figure to succeed him as party leader when he decided to step down two years ago, and was subsequently unable to squelch an internal party revolt that unseeded Poraz and disastrously split Shinui into feuding factions just prior to the last election.
So Shinui vanished, perhaps fittingly, with Lapid's own departure from politics. Even in its absence, though, the party impacted on the 2006 ballot. Many of its voters undoubtedly provided Kadima with its margin of victory, as the newly-formed party moved in to ostensibly grab the newly vacated space in the middle between Likud and Labor.
Indeed, if Lapid had been younger, it is easy to imagine him having taken a top spot in Kadima alongside his old friend Ehud Olmert, of whom he remained a fervent defender right to the very end.
Tommy Lapid was truly sui generis in Israeli politics, although Labor's recruitment of Shelly Yachimovich, another strongly opinionated broadcast journalist, suggests a possible trend. His rhetorical style, especially the tough (some would say incendiary) anti-haredi rhetoric he utilized in Shinui's election commercials, was a development whose impact on local campaigning will remain controversial.
But in his relatively brief political career, Lapid did bring about some real change here, whether for good or bad - and in that regard at least, he succeeding in making Shinui (Change) a party that lived up to its name.
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