(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Just before elections in March 2006, a Jerusalem Post reporter asked one of the unexpectedly young supporters of the Gil Pensioners Party if she knew anything about the faction's foreign policy positions.
"They are going to free Jackson Pollard," she replied.
Asked if she meant Jonathan Pollard, who is still sitting in an US jail in part because of actions by Pensioners chairman Rafi Eitan (his former Israeli spy-handler), she replied: "Who's that?"
Granted, not all of the hip younger Tel Avivian voters who helped provide the Pensioners with a surprising seven seats in the Knesset were quite so ignorant about the party's positions or personalities, nor did they constitute a majority of its supporters. But according to exit polls, only 60 percent of those who cast ballots for the party were over 60, and some 10% were under 30.
They voted for the Pensioners not out of concern for their far-off pensions, but because they were registering concern over social welfare cuts by the previous Sharon government, had been captivated by a very slick professional ad campaign that capitalized on Eitan's grandfatherly image (despite the fact he has long been known as one of Israel's most efficient and ruthless espionage agents), and most of all were casting a protest vote against "politics as usual."
And what they got in the end was -- politics as usual, as the Pensioners officially split in two yesterday, with three of its MKs - Moshe Sharoni, Elhanan Glazer and Sarah Marom-Shalev - deserting the party to form their own Justice for Pensioners faction.
The move was initiated by Sharoni, who claims he was spurred to action by the Gil Pensioners' inability to fulfill some of its campaign promises.
But right off the bat after being elected to the Knesset, Sharoni made clear he had a personal agenda as well. Dissatisfied with the faction's cabinet allotments - specifically his failure to get one - Sharoni unsuccessfully challenged fellow MK Ya'acov Ben-Izri for the health minister's slot. In the past two years Sharoni has also caused further aches and pains for his fellow Pensioners, making disparaging remarks about female Knesset employees, extreme statements about Israeli Arabs, and controversial proposals regarding sexual harassment laws. After defying the coalition on a bill to raise pensions last October, he was stripped of his chairmanship of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, setting the stage for his departure this week.
Sharoni and his fellow defectors are not without justification in their charges against the Pensioners. Having decided almost immediately after the election to align with Kadima, they forfeited whatever advantage they had in negotiating their entry into the coalition, and have still failed to make good on their pledge to get pensions up to 20% of the average national salary.
However, it is not at all clear what the new faction hopes to accomplish, when even with their defection the government would still have a majority of 64 seats. Olmert and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On are not going to bust open the budget for three seats in spare change, although Sharoni might end up with a cabinet or deputy minister's seat, which might be the whole point after all.
There is a bigger lesson for the electorate in the break-up of the Pensioners, although one that seems necessary to be taught anew after every election. When it comes to petty politics as usual, it's usually far more in the smaller parties rather than the main factions where personal egos, ambitions and quarrels come into play.
This pattern was set three decades ago with the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash), whose whole raison d'etre was its supposed commitment to political reform, and which nonetheless quickly disintegrated after winning 15 seats in the 1977 elections as its individual members pursued personal agendas.
In the 1980s the Tehiya Party, supposedly created to embody the rock-hard right-wing principles of its founders, similarly atomized after gaining five Knesset seats. In the 1990s, the same fate befell both the Tsomet Party of former Tehiya MK Rafael "Raful" Eitan (no relation to Rafi Eitan), and the far-right Moledet faction of the late Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi. Those break-ups, and in particular the buffoonish antics of former Moledet MK turned one-man (or one-clown) faction Rabbi Yosef Ba-gad, spurred the Knesset to pass a new law requiring a minimum of three breakaway MKs from a standing party in order to form a new officially recognized faction.
But that law only seemed to make it more difficult for small factions to get along together, and didn't help the likes of either the Center Party or Shinui maintain sufficient cohesion to survive internal squabbles.
It was Shinui's political hari-kari prior to the previous election that left the field open for the Pensioners, after have failed during the previous decade to garner enough votes for even one Knesset seat.
One again, a significant minority of the electorate fell for the line that somehow a newer, smaller faction strongly dedicated to either one issue or ideological view would be less prone to the self-interested intrigues and ambitions of older and larger factions - and once again were proven wrong.
Now, according to some reports, the Justice for Pensioners faction is negotiating with businessman Arkadi Gaydamak over whether to affiliate with his new Social Justice Party, which already promises to be the latest electoral contender promising to dispense with politics as usual, which may well be true in this case given its backing by Gaydamak, although not necessarily in a good way.
As for those hopeful constituents that voted two years for the Gil Pensioners Party hoping for something truly different, well, at least many of them cast their ballots knowing that these particular MKs wouldn't be in it for the long haul. "I hope they have enough people on their list that they can survive four years in the Knesset," one supporter quipped to the Post on election day; as it turns out, they should only live that long.