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Shinui: Replacing the General Zionists?

05 December 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

The centrist Shinui party is not talking much but receiving a fair amount of attention lately as a result of the Labor party’s sharp left turn over the past month.  Centrist parties have never made much of an impact on the Israeli political system.  From the outset of Jewish nationalism the General Zionists always tried to gain the center ground, at most obtaining 20 seats in the Second Knesset in 1951.  Mapai (Labor) leader and prime minister, David Ben Gurion actually began to consider them a threat but it was a passing phase as the centrists dropped to 13 seats four years later.  Representing Israel’s middle class, they did not stand much of a chance in a decade of mass, poverty stricken immigration.

The General Zionists, also known as the Liberals, who could agree on a capital incentive domestic policy tended to split apart once foreign policy issues were raised.  Hence by the 1970’s the moderates found themselves in the Labor party and the hawks merged with the Likud and attained power with Menachem Begin in 1977 when Labor lost power.  By the 1980’s the Liberals disappeared from Israel’s political map, leaving the ‘center’ open.

The Third Way faction in 1996 won four Knesset seats, only to be wiped out by the 1999 ballot.  Simultaneously, the Center Party was formed and took six seats, but within a few years everyone jumped ship, most merging with the Likud. 

Shinui was started as a reformist centrist faction in 1977 to challenge Labor corruption on the one hand and the Likud ‘Land of Israel’ ideology on the other.  The same year they joined the government but quickly began to disintegrate.  From 1981 to 1996 the party took 2-3 seats in each election.  In 1999 outspoken veteran journalist Tommy Lapid led the list and took 6 seats on a very anti-ultra orthodox platform.

For 2003 the situation looks completely different.  Dropping the anti-ultra orthodox rhetoric, the party has decided to concentrate on domestic economic issues.  To deal in foreign policy would be suicidal since the party is split between doves and hawks.  In both cases they are following in the footsteps of the General Zionists.

The big difference today is the expected lack of a credible opposition on the Left to the Likud after the next elections.  This is very similar to the right wing predicament of the 1950’s when opposition leader Menachem Begin built a coalition among his hard line Revisionists and the down and out immigrant groups who arrived to avoid being wiped off the political map.  He then added most of the Liberals and by 1977 he would win the elections in the united Gahal (Likud) list.

Shinui has the potential of replacing the General Zionists and of taking on a junior coalition role, not done by the GZ’s in the 1950’s.  Failing this, they could become a credible centrist opposition should the Likud veer too far right.

Or they could disintegrate over foreign policy issues, like everyone else.