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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Shinui party split amid a barrage of insults after its leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid resigned from his post Wednesday, in a short speech at party headquarters in Tel Aviv.
The party, with its newly elected leaders, Lapid said, "is not worthy of the public trust."
Ron Lowenthal, who tops Shinui's Knesset list, responded, "the party is better off without him."
Almost immediately following Lapid's announcement, 10 Shinui MKs, led by former Shinui second-in-command Avraham Poraz, formally resigned from the party. The MKs plan to go to the Knesset House Committee seeking authorization for a new faction, to be called either the "Secular" or "Citizen's" party, under whose banner they will act for the short remainder of the 16th Knesset.
The MKs are considering joining an existing party or forming their own but it is still unclear who among them would actively join Poraz in campaigning for the next Knesset.
Lapid has not yet said if he is joining the new group or even remaining in politics. It's likely that if he were to join Poraz's group, he would become the new party head, said MK Eti Livni, who is also part of Poraz's group.
"I'm leaving my options open," said Lapid.
His departure followed the election of mostly new faces to the party's list for the 17th Knesset, including Ron Lowenthal to the second spot in place of Poraz. While Lapid was voted in as party leader, only three other MKs from the 16th Knesset retained spots among the top ten.
Lapid, a former Ma'ariv reporter and a panelist on Popolitika, first joined the party in 1999. Under his leadership it grew from a small party to the third largest in Israel in the 2003 elections when it secured 15 seats.
"I decided with great sorrow to resign from my position as head of the Shinui Party, the head of the Knesset list and as a party member," said Lapid.
"I accept responsibility for the splintering of the party, but do not feel guilty as a result," Lapid said. "A period in my life is finished. It's a period I'm very proud of."
He blamed the party's sudden drop in the polls - to five, and then to zero - in part on the creation of the centrist Kadima party.
But for him, the decisive factor in his decision to leave was the January party primaries, in which he said party members put in place a list that he could not support.
"While it's true they were elected democratically, I'm not required to run on a platform with candidates I do not believe in," said Lapid.
He took credit not only for the party's popularity with the voters but also for securing a number of its campaign promises from the last election. Shinui was also responsible for pushing the haredi parties out of the government and for closing the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said Lapid.
The party supported economic reforms and helped push the country's politics toward the center, Lapid added, but didn't achieve all its goals, including a civil marriage law. "I'm very sorry about this," said Lapid.
While Lapid left a bare office and walked out of the party's headquarters, the remaining party members, including three MKs, immediately began working on their election campaign.
Shinui MK Ehud Rassabi said he had been a party member for 20 years - much longer than Lapid. "The party doesn't rest on one person," he said. In spite of the tendency of Israeli politics to focus on personalities and to forgo ideology for power, Rassabi said, he still believed that ideals would prevail in the end.
The party would survive because it focuses on the issues that are important to people in their day-to-day lives: who they had permission to marry and how they paid their bills, he said
As someone who supported Lapid, he said, he was sorry he ended his association with the party this way. "It's not worthy of him," said Rassabi.
Lowenthal, now the acting party head, said he believed that it was Lapid's presence in the party that had contributed to its downfall. Lapid's well-known barbs against the religious parties and politicians he disagreed with led voters to believe that Shinui had a solely negative platform based on hate. With Lapid gone, the party could focus on positive issues, which would help it rise in the polls, he predicted.
MK Igal Yasinov predicted that Poraz's new party would soon dissolve in a series of disputes among its members. "They hate each other," he said.
Based on an agreement with Shinui, Poraz's new group will be given office space in the same building. It is also looking to secure some NIS 3 million of the party's NIS 11m. in funds. But that agreement was still up in the air, said Yasinov.
Livni, who was joining Poraz, said she believes that the true ideals of Shinui were best represented by the new party, which she believes has a place in the hearts of the voters.
Shinui was first formed in 1974. It initially joined the Democratic Movement for Change. When that party dissolved, it ran on its own in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, it merged with Meretz, but then split off on its own in 1999.
Politicians from across the spectrum commented on Lapid's departure from the party on Wednesday.
National Religious Party leader Zevulun Orlev took credit for the party's split and collapse in the polls.
"The NRP torpedoed any attempts by Shinui to pass civil marriage in [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's government." It had also blocked it from gaining permission for businesses and religious services to be opened on Shabbat, he added.
Shas party leader Eli Yishai called Lapid to wish him success in his future endeavors.
"In no democracy in the world is there the right of existence to parties that are negative, destructive and hateful. It's a victory of conscience, tradition and Jewish education," he said.