Whats next — all-secular, anti-Orthodox coalition

JERUSALEM — Terrorism was not the only issue on the minds of Israeli voters this week. They also strongly signaled that they want to eliminate the religious stranglehold on their day-to-day lives.

The Shinui Party — which means "change" in Hebrew — was the third-largest vote-getter, immediately behind Likud and Labor.

Shinui, which campaigned for a secular Jewish state rather than a religious one, saw its number of seats in the Knesset almost triple — from six to 15.

"The dramatic growth of Shinui is an indication of how emotional and how central the religious-secular divide is in the minds of Israelis," said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international arm of the Reform movement.

Diaspora Jews "are under the misperception that, at this time of emergency, Israelis are totally consumed by concern over security," he continued. But the results show that even now, "the most compelling and acute agenda item is religious freedom."

The real challenge is just beginning for Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, head of the militantly secular Shinui Party, however.

A former talk-show host and intellectual dilettante, Lapid until now has enjoyed the perks of celebrity without the responsibilities of power. Now that he heads such a large and powerful Knesset contingent, Shinui voters will demand results.

But unless Lapid joins Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's next coalition, he is unlikely to win Knesset approval for any of his proposed reforms, such as military recruitment of fervently religious yeshiva students, legalization of civil marriage and divorce, and public transportation on the Sabbath.

On the other hand, if Lapid goes back on his word and joins a government with Shas and United Torah Judaism, two fervently religious parties, he will probably destroy his credibility.

In other words, if forced to choose between the opposition and a coalition that includes Shas and United Torah Judaism, Lapid may well find himself in a no-win situation.

Shinui's fate is tied to the political future of the Labor Party.

For Sharon to form a secular government, he will need Labor's 19 seats as well as Shinui's 15. If Labor decides not to join Sharon and form an opposition bloc, then Sharon will have to form a coalition with Shas' 11 seats plus the other religious parties.

Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna's refusal to join a national unity government and the pressures on Sharon to include Shas in his coalition appear to dash Lapid's dream of the first all-secular government in Israeli history.

However, Sharon has a month and a half to form his government, and a lot can change between now and then.

A secular coalition has many advocates. Avi Bettelheim, deputy editor of Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, calls it his "dream government."

With just four parties — Likud, Labor, Shinui and One Nation (a workers' rights group) — a secular coalition would have a solid majority of 75 members in the 120-seat Knesset.

Such a government, Bettelheim writes, could fight corruption, draft a constitution, change the electoral system, institute policies for economic growth, pass a responsible budget, renew negotiations with the Palestinians or carry out a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"The protest of the voters and the sheer number of votes they gave Shinui are the expression that the Israeli public" is fed up "with the Orthodox monopoly and religious coercion," said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of Israel's Conservative movement.

"A secular unity government will be very positive in terms of a new construction of the issue of religion and state in Israel. And sitting in the opposition will cause the Orthodox parties to wrestle with their responsibility for the state of religion in Israel."

Shinui's meteoric success stems largely from young, middle class, Ashkenazi voters' disillusionment with the two big parties, Labor and Likud.

Shinui also benefited from the crisis in the Israeli left after the Oslo peace process disintegrated under the weight of Palestinian terror attacks.

Many young Israelis serving in the army or doing reserve duty found the conciliatory messages from Labor and its left-wing ally, Meretz, detached from reality.

Shinui's proposal to defer peacemaking until Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat leaves the scene — focusing instead on domestic Israeli issues such as the religious-secular divide — attracted droves of young, secular Israelis.

But it was the party's stance on religious-secular issues that defined Shinui. The party's campaign made much of the fact that secular Israeli youth serve in the army and then pay their own university tuition while their fervently religious contemporaries are exempt from military service and receive generous state subsidies for yeshiva study.

Lapid was able to paint a convincing picture of an imminent secular revolution in Israel: An all-secular coalition could draft yeshiva students alongside secular Israelis, he argued. Religious-education funding would require the introduction of a core curriculum of math, computer science, English and civil studies. Israelis would be able to marry in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or civil ceremonies. The religious councils that regulate local religious life would be abolished.

In short, the Orthodox control of Judaism in Israel — and many aspects of Israelis' daily life — would be broken.

Orthodox politicians were outraged, accusing Lapid of virtually declaring war on Judaism. In many other countries, they argued, Shinui's platform would be considered anti-Semitic.

In any case, given the likelihood of a coalition that includes the fervently religious, will Shinui be able to make a significant mark on Israel's political and religious life? Or will it prove to be merely a passing phenomenon?

Past experience with centrist parties does not augur well. The Democratic Movement for Change, which won 15 seats in 1977, had all but disappeared by the next elections in 1981.

Likewise, the Center Party that formed before the 1999 election disintegrated before this one.

The deeper question this time is whether Labor and the left can bounce back from the drubbing they took on Tuesday. If they don't, Shinui could expand further into their political space.

But if they do, how much of Shinui's secular agenda will Labor and Meretz take on board, and with how much determination?