Israeli Politics' New Star Toots His Own Shofar

Times Staff Writer

Yosef "Tommy" Lapid -- politician and provocateur, self-described loudmouth and self-styled defender of Israel's secular Jews, easily the most eye-catching candidate in this country's lackluster electoral field -- was talking about what may well be his favorite subject: himself.

Lapid, who is white-haired, rotund and 71, heads the once-obscure party Shinui, which means "change" in Hebrew. The party is poised to make the leap into the political big leagues in next week's elections.

Now in possession of just six seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, Shinui is forecast to win as many as 16 on Tuesday. That would make it Israel's third-largest party and transform it into a powerful force in shaping the next government, which is likely to be formed by a coalition.

Lapid, a political latecomer who made a name for himself as a journalist, author and regular on a screamfest-style television talk show, is loving every minute of his new prominence.

"Am I ever sorry I decided to enter public life?" he asked, rhetorically and happily, in an interview this week at his campaign headquarters here. "No. Others might be sorry I did, very sorry. But me, never!"

When Lapid speaks -- and he does a great deal; one of his books is titled "I'm Still Talking" -- much of what emerges is paradoxical.

He is a nonreligious man who dwells deeply on his Jewish identity, a cultivated and multilingual bon vivant who relishes his loutish Archie Bunker image, a onetime gadfly of the political establishment who now aspires to a place in the corridors of power.

Little in his jovial and expansive manner would suggest a life marked by early tragedy.

Born Tomislav Lempel in a Hungarian-speaking border region of Yugoslavia, he spent much of his childhood in the shadow of the Holocaust. His father, a prominent lawyer and journalist, was arrested by the Nazis and died in the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Together with his mother, Tomislav lived a fugitive's life of forged identity papers, bitter privation and breathtakingly narrow escapes. The pair made their way to Israel in 1948, the year of the state's creation.

He was two weeks shy of his 17th birthday. Like many new immigrants, he adopted a Hebraized version of his name -- Lapid, meaning "torch" -- and joined the army.

In this political campaign, as in 1999, when Shinui gained its parliamentary foothold, Lapid's mantra is the "separation of synagogue and state" -- a call for a secular Israel in which religious Jews do not dictate public policy. His prime target is the array of taxpayer-funded subsidies and perks provided to ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 12% of the population.

"They don't serve in the army, they don't help defend the state, they don't work, they don't contribute," he said. "Instead, supporting them rests on the backs of everyone else in the country."

Working up a head of steam, Lapid delivered part of his standard stump speech, denouncing religious-based restrictions on transportation, food preparation and commerce.

"I don't want to make them drive on the Sabbath, but I don't want them to stop me from driving, or shopping or seeing a film," he said. "I don't want to make them eat pork, but I don't want them to stop me from eating whatever I want."

One of Lapid's campaign fliers features a pugnacious-looking baby -- who looks a lot like the balding, round-faced candidate -- carrying a shopping basket bulging with strictly non- kosher items like ham hocks and lobster.

In the past, Lapid has referred to the ultrareligious as "leeches" and "draft dodgers." While his invective makes many uneasy, his message has struck a chord with secular Israelis, who are being called up by the thousands for military reserve duty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and who are feeling the effects of a faltering economy.

On a recent campaign swing that took him after midnight to trendy Tel Aviv nightspots, Lapid received an enthusiastic welcome even from the most languid of the bars' black-clad late-night habitues.

"Tommy!" some shouted and clapped.

"It's good to lay eyes on the man I'm going to vote for," said Michael Elyakim, 29. "He's the solution for the secular people."

Israel's religious parties, which have long wielded clout disproportionate to their size because of their role as a swing vote in governing coalitions, unsurprisingly regard Lapid as the archenemy. In one acrimonious exchange with them, he was branded a Nazi and an anti-Semite.

Some analysts see him as a divisive force in an already fragmented electorate, pitting European-descended Jews against Middle Eastern ones, religious against secular, the well-off against the poor.

"He has a cause, but it's a negative one," said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "Even though there is room for a centrist party here in Israel, Shinui is in many ways escapist, and that appeals to people in these times."

Most galling for Lapid's ultrareligious foes: The largest of the religious parties in parliament, Shas, is expected to lose strength in this election.

Pollsters say Shinui is siphoning off votes from both the left-leaning Labor Party, regarded by many as well-intentioned but ineffectual, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud, which is expected to win the largest bloc of seats in the Knesset but has lost some of its support because of corruption scandals.

Lapid has said he is willing to join a coalition with Likud, but not one that includes religious parties.

While the ultrareligious are his main target, Lapid has skewered others as well. In the campaign's waning days, opponents are seeking to paint him as antifeminist, a homophobe and callously indifferent to the poor.

Although there are plenty of inflammatory statements on the record from his days on the raucous TV talk show "Popolitika," he brushes aside allegations of hatemongering.

"I have spoken and written so many millions of words, it would be amazing if there were someone I had not gotten around to offending," he said.

Lapid is devoted to the high culture of his lost Central European youth. He quotes Voltaire and Churchill, loves a challenging game of chess, has written cookbooks and a best-selling series of travel guides, and speaks half a dozen languages.

Lapid also can be lacerating in his humor, seen by some as a refreshing quality in a campaign marked by a pervasive sense of melancholy and detachment among voters. Most people here are feeling worn down, sickened and saddened by nearly 2 1/2 years of bloody conflict with the Palestinians.

Shinui's views on the Palestinians, while not the centerpiece of its platform, have evolved. Lapid once advocated annexing the West Bank; now he supports Palestinian statehood. But he thinks the peacemaking process will be long.

His taste for the spotlight -- he likes to speak of "my cha-ris-ma" -- seems to run in the family. His wife, Shulamit, is a well-known novelist, and son Yair is a TV personality.

If Shinui does join a new government, Lapid wants the job of justice minister -- which he said he would use to change "medieval" laws such as the religious monopoly on divorce and marriage.

While he may be unorthodox in every sense of the word, his sense of who he is and where he came from is never far beneath the surface.

Recently, he traveled to his childhood home and visited his grandfather's grave. Although his grandfather was buried alone, 11 other names were inscribed on the tombstone -- all family members, including Lapid's father, who vanished during the Holocaust into ash or unknown graves.

"Everything I do is very Jewish, without being religious," he said. "I live in Israel, I speak Hebrew, I served in our army. This is the only country in the world in which I will live. I will never be a refugee again."

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