The savior of the seniors

Since getting elected, Rafi Eitan has struggled to advance the pensioners' cause in a system that requires non-arthritic elbows to succeed

September 21, 2006 10:59
Rafi Eitan 88 298

Rafi Eitan 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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When the time comes for a publication to select a man of the year, more often than not politicians are chosen - especially the leaders of the country. This year, it will not be so easy.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, had a difficult summer and still have not proven themselves effective leaders, let alone men of the year. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon took Israeli politics through a big bang, but were he to wake up from his coma, chances are he wouldn't be satisfied with the results of his Gaza Strip disengagement plan.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's star is falling, Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu led the Likud to devastating results on Election Day and President Moshe Katsav has had to deny reports that he is considering suicide.

The only politician who, looking back at the last 12 months, can seriously be considered Israel's man of the year is Seniors Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan.

For readers angry at him for his past role as Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard's handler in the mid-1980s, seeing Eitan named man of the year could come as a shock. But it is important to look only at what has happened in 5766, when Eitan's image changed from the super-spy who abandoned Pollard to Superman for thousands of Israeli seniors.

At the start of the election campaign, it seemed like the only new party that would make it into the Knesset would be Kadima. Gil, the Pensioners Party, received virtually no coverage when its leaders decided to ask Eitan to head their list of Knesset candidates.

But the media and a group of celebrities saw the Mr. Magoo-like Eitan and the seniors he represented as a cute, human-interest story. Supporting the Pensioners became a fad for the old and young, just in time for the March 28 election. The Pensioners surprised everyone by winning Knesset seats for six zaydes and a bubby, attracting 185,759 votes, including nearly 20,000 in Tel Aviv, where only Kadima and Labor had more support.

"A year ago, I didn't think I would enter politics," Eitan said in an interview last week at his office in the Knesset. "But when I decided to run on the senior issue, I had a gut feeling I would succeed. I understood that Sharon's illness left a vacuum that would be filled by several parties. I saw that we, who passed 70 with our reputations intact, could get by without people finding skeletons in our closets. I thought that this would be a recipe for success."

Since getting elected, Eitan has struggled to advance his cause in a system that requires non-arthritic elbows to succeed. But last week, the cabinet approved the formation of a Seniors Affairs department in the Prime Minister's Office, along with a hefty raise in funding to help the poorest among the elderly.

"We want to get to a situation where there are no hungry seniors," Eitan said. "It will take a few months to build the system, but once it is in place, all the seniors will realize how much we have helped them and then our support will rise. We think we will be stronger in the next election. But if we won't be in the Knesset, so what?"

FOR A party that ran on only one issue, it has been hard to pinpoint the Pensioners and Eitan on the political map. But all of the party's MKs are former Labor members except Eitan, who takes pride in the fact that he was one of the people who convinced Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Olmert and other ministers have abandoned talk of withdrawing unilaterally due to the rocket attacks that followed Israel's unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, but Eitan said he still supports unilaterally drawing a border in the West Bank. Eitan would keep settlement blocs, strategic sites and empty deserts on the Israeli side of the border, and he said the IDF should remain on the other side after the settlers are evacuated.

"We need to look 10 years ahead," the 79-year-old Eitan said. "We have no chance to live in peace with the Palestinians in the near future. We can't expel them. We can't kill all of them. So what's left is separation."

Among the places that Eitan says he would keep in Israel forever are Gush Etzion, Nokdim, Tekoa, Maale Adumim and Ariel. He said he wanted Ariel, Eli and Shiloh connected to the Jordan Valley.

Eitan said the rockets fired from Gaza and Lebanon are "a technical matter that needs to be overcome in one way or another." Unlike conventional wisdom in Israel today, Eitan believes that Israel won the war in Lebanon.

"Israel didn't fail militarily," he said. "It succeeded with air power militarily and failed in the ground attack. For the first time, we lost the battle but won the war. Iran wanted a lot more Israeli casualties and they didn't get them."

Asked to predict the results of the inquiries into the war, he said that none of the investigations would reveal anything because nothing about the war was kept a secret and everything has already reached the press.

Eitan said the war in Lebanon woke up the world to the Iranian threat and resulted in the building of an international force in Lebanon that he believes would make it impossible for Hizbullah to attack Israel.

"It was fortunate for Israel that the war broke out," Eitan said. "Now if Iran attacks us, the entire world would back our response. This wasn't true before."

Eitan, who is a member of the security cabinet, said that Israel should take defensive measures to prepare for an attack from Iran. These include deploying anti-missile missiles and building shelters.

However, he said, Israel cannot go on the offensive to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capability without American approval.

"Israel on the Iranian issue doesn't have diplomatic freedom to act independently," Eitan said. "We can't act with violent force against Iran because US forces are there in Iraq. We can't do anything without American approval, even if it's a matter of life and death."

That quote from Eitan indicates that he has come a long way since the Pollard affair, when he used the US Navy analyst to spy on his home country. Eitan said he regretted operating Pollard, despite the crucial information that he has been credited with giving Israel about the enemies of the Jewish state.

"I gave my opinion to the Americans that I made a mistake [when I operated him] but that Israel was in dire straits, which makes people do things beyond what is permitted," Eitan said. "It is likely that we could have gotten the same information without him."

Critics of Eitan's handling of the Pollard affair will undoubtedly never forgive him, but if Eitan succeeds in improving the lives of thousands of seniors, then his place in the Israeli history books could be earned in a positive way.

The new year of 5767 will determine whether Eitan and his Pensioners Party will fade away or become part of Israel's future.

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