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Israel's Grand Old Party and Its Leader Surprised Everyone
Cab drivers, divorced fathers, feminists, environmentalists, the bankrupt and various other Israeli groups have banded together over the years to advance their overriding common interest by running for the Knesset. But unless you count Agudat Yisrael (Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox) and Shas (Sephardi ultra-Orthodox), no demographic or identity group running on behalf of an apolitical cause has ever emerged a resounding success, a clear "winner" in a Knesset election, until the suddenly-internationally-known Pensioners Party.
By now, the basic reasons why the party won seven seats in the March 28 election are understood: Voters, especially the young, were fed up with the corruption and hypocrisy that had spread through Israeli politics; it was clear that Kadima was going to win the election no matter what; and here was a feisty, unlikely, underdog party with a unanimously popular cause - a better life for Israel's hard-put old people.
Party leader Rafi Eitan, the legendary former spy, bad guy of the infamous Pollard affair and present-day multimillionaire with vast business interests in Cuba, became recognized for his happy grin and oversized, coke-bottle-thick eyeglasses - an adorable Mr. Magoo. The Pensioners Party became the fad of the election, the "coolest" vote anyone could cast.
But can it last?
Can the party repeat its success next time? Can it make good in office by actually winning the material gains it promised its constituency - 750,000 Israeli pensioners?
Founded a decade ago by former Labor MK Nava Arad, the party originally attracted most of its members from Labor. For this election, the Pensioners tried to become part of Kadima, but then-prime minister and party leader Ariel Sharon would not agree. The party's contact with Sharon was longtime crony Eitan, who himself also joined Kadima with the hopes of getting into Knesset. But when Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, shunted him way down the candidates' list, he quit. Eitan was unattached, and the Pensioners were looking for name recognition.
The irony of Eitan's sudden popularity was that his image as a garrulous but shrewd old-timer was such a sweetened, distorted version of the kind of man he is - which is anything but sweet. A legendary Mossad spy whose close ties to Sharon went back to their days in the Palmach, Eitan, 79, is reportedly worth tens of millions today, with huge agricultural and real estate holdings in Cuba, where he has hit it off with Fidel Castro. While campaigning, he was fond of recalling his lead role in the 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann. He was less pleased when right-wing activists called attention to his lead role in the Pollard affair.
Because of that debacle, Eitan has not traveled to America in the last 20 years - for fear of arrest.
As head of the Defense Ministry's overseas intelligence operation at the time, he "ran" Jonathan Pollard, calling the shots in the handling of the overzealous American Zionist, the corruption of him with Israeli money, and the ultimate abandonment of him to life in prison, as Eitan and his subordinates escaped back to Israel.
But that distraction notwithstanding, most important for the Pensioners Party is that the other motifs of this election, such as voter disaffection and emphasis on socioeconomic issues, aren't necessarily one-time phenomena. Moreover, it seems that with so much public demand for action against poverty, the Pensioners Party is almost certain to make good on its campaign promise to win budget increases for Israel's elderly.
"It's clear they'll succeed; the agenda has changed," insists Tel Aviv University professor Michal Shamir. "But a lot of other parties - mainly Kadima and Labor - will also be claiming ownership of these achievements."
The Israeli political system is now very fluid, stresses Shamir - there's very little voter loyalty to any party anymore, so there are no safe bets in future elections, certainly not for a political newcomer.
Maybe not. But who would have bet the Pensioners Party would be such a success this time?
Larry Derfner is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.