Almost a year and a half after its out-of-the-blue landing on the national political scene, the Gil Pensioners' Party finally made some headlines on Wednesday.
Unfortunately for its members, these did not stem from party leader Rafi Eitan's latest assertion that its Knesset representation would rise from seven seats last year to 10 next time. The heightened focus, rather, was on the allegation that one of its septet had sexually assaulted a female party activist more than a year ago. Yediot Aharonot splashed the tale across the top of its front page and gave it plenty of space inside as well, without naming the alleged offender. But the Pensioners' Yitzhak Ziv was outed by the morning radio talk shows, and rushed to protest his innocence.
This is not, however, a column about the marginal impact of the Pensioners, or, for that matter, the accelerating trend to superficiality in parts of the Israeli media. Rather, the brief and unhappy re-emergence of the Pensioners into the spotlight reminded me how improbable their arrival on the political landscape was in the first place - and how the circumstances that saw them brought in from nowhereville are even more conducive today for would-be political newcomers.
In the run-up to last year's general elections, the Pensioners were out there on the lunatic, unelectable fringe along with two dozen or so other no-hoper parties - the likes of the taxi drivers' list, or the campaigners for justice for battered husbands.
Their credibility arrived only in the very final stages of the campaign, when they showed up at the bottom of a handful of polls, just possibly predicted to clear the threshold and gain a couple of Knesset seats. That showing evidently inspired more voters, in turn, to contemplate plumping for them. And in the event, of course, they did far better than merely clearing the threshold, garnering what amounted to the national protest vote. Plenty of first-time voters, for instance, subsequently told the shocked pollsters, who were trying to work out what had gone wrong with all those scientific surveys, that they'd opted for Eitan and his anonymous colleagues because he looked sweet, their grandparents didn't have enough money and, most importantly, they were sick to death of the established crop of political operators.
Flash forward 17 months and a considerably greater proportion of the Israeli electorate would appear to be sick to death of the established crop of political operators - for ill-serving the electorate in last summer's war to the extent that our regional enemies scent weakness, and for dimming still further the beacon of clean, honest and selfless governance that the revived state of Israel had hoped to shine for the world. The prime minister's personal popularity, or lack thereof, has become the stuff of stand-up comedy: At a recent performance in Jerusalem, one comic joked that Ehud Olmert's ratings were at a rock bottom three percent - "and since the margin of error is five percent, that means there's two percent of people who aren't even born who don't like him!"
If the protest vote garnered the pensioners seven seats last March, just imagine what a well-funded political list, headed by credible personalities from military and other impressive backgrounds, could achieve next time around.
Amid escalating concern over Iran - its nuclear program, its presence on our borders in the shape of Hamas and Hizbullah, its concerted spearheading of the delegitimize Israel campaign - and the understandable worry that the current leadership lacks the competence to protect and defend us, the Israeli electorate is particularly volatile, particularly desperate for some kind of panacea.
The Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu may be the country's most popular politician right now, but not by much. The extent of antipathy to him has again been underlined by Ehud Barak's dizzying ascent to the level of serious prime ministerial challenger since his successful march back to the Labor leadership. Barak is not an especially effective public speaker; he chose not to stay and fight in opposition after losing the 2001 elections, instead going off to make his fortune; and the policy central to his 1999 election victory, the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, boomeranged to culminate in the war whose anniversary we have been marking this week. And yet, there he is, returned from the political wilderness to breathe down Netanyahu's neck.
What's more, Netanyahu is about to reassert his leadership of the Likud in party primaries against the sole opposition, now that Silvan Shalom has dropped out of the race, of far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin. Presumably, Netanyahu's victory margin will be wide, but given the high motivation of Feiglin's supporters, and the assumption in Netanyahu's camp of an easy win, Feiglin will probably score well into double figures, providing the opportunity for the Likud's detractors to portray the party as infiltrated by extremists, damaging Netanyahu's efforts to appeal to the political center.
Never slow to spot an opportunity, Russian billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak this week formally registered his Social Justice party - and his aides rushed to assert that internal polls showed a target of 20 Knesset seats to be realistic. Privately, Gaydamak is said to be claiming that it could garner twice that many if he fully dedicated himself to the campaign.
These are absurd numbers. Or are they? Gaydamak has said he does not seek to become prime minister. But in a country waiting to be wooed, his support, or that of any other wildly wealthy patron, could work wonders for a credible prime ministerial candidate, backed by a credible team.
Of course, experience shows that any such list would probably implode, sooner rather than later, under the combined weight of the assembled egos. But the successes of the Pensioners, of Shinui, and of Kadima for that matter, confirm the potential for short-term impact. The burst of resonance enjoyed by such parties points to the Israeli voter's relentless search for salvation - the willingness to believe, generally in defiance of all logic and common sense, that a better course for Israel is out there somewhere, if only we had the right captain at the wheel.
As things stand, we're in a kind of cycle, where the policy discredited longest ago returns to prime popularity when enough time has elapsed. Netanyahu was chucked out of office for hanging tough, counter-productively, when demographics indicated (as they still do) that the status quo was working against us. Barak was ousted because Yasser Arafat's stance at Camp David in 2000 demonstrated the impossibility of negotiation in the absence of a genuine partner. And the idea fostered by Ariel Sharon and Olmert of determining Israel's fate unilaterally lies crushed under the barrages of Katyushas from Lebanon and Kassams from Gaza. Hanging tough didn't work, neither did negotiation, and neither did unilateralism. So hanging tough is back in favor now, but not supported with any real enthusiasm. A restless public is looking elsewhere, anywhere, for inspiration.
Having disproved the skeptics with his comeback, Barak presumably believes that he can now bring down the coalition, possibly with the help of Tzipi Livni, at a time of his choosing, and extend the comeback all the way to the Prime Minister's Office. Netanyahu, for his part, presumably believes that only Barak can thwart his return to the top job.
But disappointed with its leadership and worried by the gathering regional storm, much of the public, given the opportunity, would probably prefer some fresher faces, provided they brought credible experience from other fields and exuded confidence and competence. Last time, after all, when they were looking for something new, a sizable chunk of the electorate found only something old, in the shape of the pensioners. And they voted for them anyway.