Middle Israel: Tommy comes of age

And we thought that the pope would run out of prayers before Tommy Lapid ran out of sound bites.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Born weeks after his missing-in-action father's replacement by another man, the rock-opera hero Tommy eventually saw his biological father return and kill his mother's lover - a trauma that left the tender child dumb, deaf and blind. The real-life Tommy - until recently Israel's most outspoken, provocative and confident politician - is now equally orphaned, shocked, helpless and speechless. So shocking has his loss of the political center's leadership been that when asked on Israel Radio about fellow Shinui leader Uriel Reichman's rumored (at the time) abandonment of their party, the unthinkable happened: Tommy hung up. Tommy? Lapid? And we thought that the pope would run out of prayers, Shimon Peres would run out of prophecies and Rabbi Ovadia would run out of curses before Tommy ran out of sound bites. And he can only blame himself. IN MANY respects, the Middle Israelis who voted Shinui in their droves have not been let down. The Paritzky Affair (whereby the party's No. 3 was caught red-handed plotting to frame its No. 2) notwithstanding, Lapid had Shinui make some good use of the sizable faction with which it joined the 16th Knesset and the second Sharon government. Without Shinui's unswerving backing, neither Netanyahu's reforms nor Sharon's disengagement project would have taken off, and as ministers, Shinui's representatives brought some long-overdue business-mindedness, professionalism and cleanliness to Israel's corridors of power. At the Interior Ministry they rationalized municipal spending, at the Environment Ministry they offered a reminder - tragically cut short with minister Yehudit Naot's untimely death - that protecting our landscape should be a full-time job, and in the Justice Ministry they even brought passion, thanks to Lapid's own presence there. Moreover, as a coalition partner Shinui brought a kind of loyalty, conscientiousness and consistency about which Israeli prime ministers have long ceased to even dream. And yet, three decades after its establishment and a mere three years after it finally made it to Israel's innermost decision-making forums, the well-meaning Shinui is about to lose much of its following. Why? Because it lacked the three prerequisites for long-term political relevance: tactical instincts, ideological balance and strategic vision. SHINUI'S FIRST failure came when it was maneuvered out of Sharon's coalition. Lapid's apparent assumption that his personal alliance with Sharon was as solid as, say, Gerhard Schroeder's was with his eternal foreign minister Joschka Fischer proved unfounded. In Sharon's strategies the only constant is the enemy; allies appear, disappear and reappear according to what rapidly changing situations demand and unpredictable circumstances allow. When Sharon was already openly courting Labor a chuckling and visibly conceited Lapid still told The Jerusalem Post that the Sharon government's "capitalistic axis" would not be broken. Several days later it actually was, as Lapid et al. were evicted due to their ill-advised insistence that several hundred million shekels not be transferred to haredi causes. The ostensibly principled stance impressed no one, particularly considering that it came a short while after Lapid had prudently persuaded his party to accept United Torah Judaism's admission into the coalition. The failure to be ahead of the political game is not a crime, nor anything to be ashamed of. Sharon, too, took decades to become the seasoned politician with whom Lapid was compelled to wrestle, but the fact is that Lapid, after emerging as a political novice in the aftermath of his stint as a coalition linchpin, proved even more fatefully unprepared for the so-called "big bang" that was brewing under his otherwise famously sensitive, cook-book author's nose. Had he been prepared for this moment, Lapid would have now had new faces to show in his party, like his rivals. He certainly would have averted his stinging loss of Reichman, whose role as party co-founder and chairman of its council, and whose prestige as one of Israel's leading academics, speak volumes about Lapid's failure not only to handle situations, but also to shape trends. THE MOST disappointing thing in Shinui's performance was, paradoxically, its attitude to reform. The party whose name actually means change proved at times reluctant, at others aloof, and at any rate disjointed and ineffective, when it came to reforming the Jewish state. Yes, it had its impact when it came to the abolition of the Religious Affairs Ministry - a uniquely Israeli affront to both God and the taxpayer - and it also successfully kept Shas out of the coalition for the first time in its eventful parliamentary history. Yet these and other accomplishments paled in comparison with the failure to lead, and in some cases even join, the fight for change in a broader spectrum of domestic issues that trouble most Israelis. On the municipal level, Middle Israelis were astonished to learn that while interior minister Avraham Poraz was fighting corruption, imposing accounting standards and unseating delinquent mayors, Shinui did not find the system itself deformed. Empowering mayors at the expense of the central government, Lapid studiously explained once to this writer, had been tested in Britain and the experiment failed. Maybe, but the Israeli experiment also failed, and mayors will never be good if micro-managed from Jerusalem, even if the interior minister is from Shinui. When asked if he was happy with Netanyahu's tax cuts, which Netanyahu himself found insufficient, a satiated Lapid refused to set a numeric goal and a target date for drastically reducing the tax burden. And when asked whether Shinui would change some of its largely anonymous Knesset members, Lapid reportedly said there was no need for change on that front either. Most tellingly, Lapid failed to seek electoral reform. The other day this writer learned from Knesset member Reshef Cheyne that he is promoting a plan all his own (to carve the country into 20 regions each of which would elect six Knesset members) for electoral reform. When I asked Reichman - one of Israel's most veteran, expert and crusading electoral reformers - he didn't know about Cheyne's idea, which he immediately dismissed. To me that meant that Shinui was not functioning as a party, one that systematically probes, debates and impacts national issues. It also coincided with reports that Lapid and Poraz, in their quest to preserve the existing order, had discouraged open debate and energetic membership drives. All this aversion to change did not prevent Lapid from incessantly talking, here there and everywhere about this, that and whatever. Had he listened to them a little more than to himself, Lapid might have detected Middle Israelis' disapproval of his ultra-liberal zeal, anti-haredi obsession (particularly the opposition to the Tal Law) and reformist lethargy. They wanted a kind of conservative party, and instead got a hybrid that often competed with Meretz. Even so, Lapid's six-year-long political adventure was not in vain. The man who excelled as a journalist, chess player, chef and travel-book writer has demonstrated (as this column insisted already a decade ago) that the old Likud-Labor dichotomy no longer reflected Israeli realities and begged to be succeeded by something new. The fictional Tommy eventually regained his speech and eyesight. Our Tommy is too old for that. Instead, he is about to become even more speechless as the meteoric, if belated, political chapter in his career is gobbled up by the very centrist revolution he helped herald.