The grand old party

A group of anonymous pensioners teaches some new tricks to the young dogs of politics.

rafi eitan 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
rafi eitan 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
Taxi drivers, divorced fathers, the bankrupt, feminists, environmentalists 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 are understood: Voters, especially the young, were fed up with the corruption and hypocrisy that had spread through Israeli politics; it was clear 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 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 in the next election? Can it make good in office by actually winning the material gains it promised its constituency - 750,000 Israeli pensioners? Is the Pensioners Party's startling success the herald of a new Israeli politics that focuses less on ideology and national figures and more on day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues and unprofessional, "authentic" candidates? Will the party's showing open the floodgates for other disadvantaged groups with broad public support, such as the handicapped, to run for Knesset? Is the rise of the Pensioners Party a sign of the atomization of Israeli political life, with identity groups splitting off from the mainstream and looking out strictly for themselves? ONE THING that is certain is that this is not only a new political party, but a new political phenomenon in this country. The pensioners didn't win seven Knesset seats by accident or magic; it won them with an imaginative, original election campaign that went against the grain in a thoroughly calculated way. "In our first polls we identified two trends: one, that pensioners were deeply disappointed with the large parties because they all went along with Netanyahu's budget cuts; and two, many people in general, especially the young, were alienated from the large parties. They felt the established parties were disconnected from the issues that were really important to them in their day-to-day lives." Speaking is Yuval Porat, 31, a former journalist with Ha'aretz and IDF Radio who, with partners Ziv Barnea and Assaf Levine, runs Spin Public Opinion Shapers, which conducted the Pensioners Party's campaign. In Israeli electioneering, Spin is now the state-of-the-art. "Our polls also found that the main thing holding pensioners back from voting for a party of their own was the idea that it wouldn't pass the threshold for getting into the Knesset [2% of the total votes cast], so it would be a wasted vote," Porat continues. "Then we saw that there was a huge percentage of floating voters, and that the percentage wasn't going down as the election drew closer, which had never happened before. The consensus wisdom was that the floating voters were undecided between the established parties. But we saw it differently: that the floating voters didn't feel they had a party to vote for." Putting all this together, Spin, working on a relatively meager budget, crafted a highly aggressive campaign whose first aim was to convince pensioners that they could change their lives with their votes, and whose second aim was to persuade young people that here, at last, was a party worth going out and voting for. "People who have to struggle to survive, like a lot of the pensioners, feel they don't have any power, that they're alone. When they appeal for public support, they usually do it from a position of weakness, as helpless people apologetically asking for help," Porat continues. Unleashing a media campaign based mainly on attracting sympathetic news coverage, but including a barrage of Internet ads and e-mail messages, Spin came up with a new strategy: empowering pensioners. "We told them that 750,000 pensioners is a powerful political force, that if they work together, they can be strong," he says. A key campaign slogan was: "Bibi wrote us off. Olmert threw us out. Peretz gave up on us. This time we look out for ourselves." The identity created for the Pensioners Party was of a fighting anti-establishment movement, the outcast taking on the elite and making a bold, confrontational demand for recognition. It was designed to capture the attention of young voters, which in turn would capture the attention of the media, building all-important "buzz" around the campaign. Porat explains: "If pensioners are voting for a pensioners party, that's not news, but if young people are voting for a pensioners party, that's news." The campaign purposely avoided seeking support from young politicos such as university student leaders, and instead found anonymous, "authentic" young people - a Tel Aviv hair stylist, a travel agency manager, a fledgling actor - and steered reporters to them. "There was a full-page story in Ma'ariv on young voters for the Pensioners Party, from which we got huge reaction," says Porat. Another successful "gimmick" was sending Eitan and some of his young fans on an election tour of the cafes around Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin. About a month before the election, a pension fund unofficially connected to the Labor Party held a convention for the elderly at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, drawing many thousands of them over several days, and giving the Pensioners Party an opportunity to hone its image as a fighting force taking on the big guys. "We wanted to force the Labor Party into a head-to-head confrontation with us, so we decided to piss them off," Porat recalls. "We sent our people to the convention with posters and brochures, and they demanded the right to speak, and ending up winning a lot of support. They provoked Labor on its home turf, which goaded Labor into fighting back in the media, attacking the Pensioners Party, attacking Rafi Eitan. This, of course, gave us even more exposure and lifted us onto a completely new level - as a legitimate competitor with the Labor Party for the support of the elderly." A couple of weeks before the election, polls showed the party approaching the 2% threshhold. During the week of the election, polls gave it a good chance of passing the threshhold and winning two Knesset seats. Spin pulled out all the stops. Seeing that the voter turnout was going to be unusually low, and that a high percentage of the no-shows were going to be young people, the campaign launched a blitz of Internet and e-mail messages saying, "Instead of a blank ballot, cast a zach ballot" - zach, or zayin-chaf, being the party's call letters as well as a Hebrew word meaning "pure" or "transparent." The idea was to put up the Pensioners Party as a protest vote. The language of the media campaign became more and more youthful and irreverent. Playing on zayin, which also means penis, the word went out to voters to "sam zayin" on the large political parties - an obvious double entendre meaning 1) vote for the Pensioners Party, and 2) let Kadima, Labor and Likud go screw themselves. In addition, the celebrities who before had quietly supported the party, most notably singers Moshe and Orna Datz and comedian Eli Yatzpan, began talking up the pensioners' candidacy to reporters and talk show hosts. On the day before the election, Tel Aviv taxi drivers - a symbol of the Israeli amcha, or common people - were deluged with posters and brochures to drive around with, an alternative means of mass communication that drew yet further news coverage. "On Election Day," says Porat, "we didn't have the money or the numbers of paid workers to drive people to the polls to vote, or to call up all the pensioners. So instead we used a much cheaper, computerized phone message from Rafi Eitan that reached nearly every one of them." Buses carried posters reading, "Pensioners are going into the Knesset. Zayin-chaf." "This was to reinforce our message that a vote for the Pensioners Party wasn't a wasted vote, that it was a vote that would have influence," Porat says. "We were saying that the party was a shoo-in for the Knesset, and now we want to increase our power and go for a third seat, a fourth seat." They went all the way for a seventh seat. Ya'acov Ben-Izri, number two behind Eitan on the party's list, says, "Four of our seats came from pensioners' votes, and the remaining three came mainly from young voters." OLD AND YOUNG came together in the end with the spirit and momentum of a popular movement. However, these voters, certainly the young ones, elected the party's first seven candidates pretty much on blind faith. Except for Eitan, the incoming pensioners' Knesset faction is made up of unknowns; the other six new MKs are all heads of various pensioner organizations. Founded a decade ago by former Labor MK Nava Arad, the party originally attracted most of its members from the Labor Party. For this election, though, the Pensioners Party at first tried to become part of Kadima, but then-prime minister and party leader Ariel Sharon "didn't accept our platform," says Ben-Izri, 78. He notes that their "contact man" with Sharon was Eitan, the premier's long-time crony. Eitan himself also joined Kadima with 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 someone with name recognition to lead them. "We forced him to lead the ticket," says Ben-Izri in his hearty manner, characterizing Eitan as the kind of "personality" the party needed. 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 "zach." 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 of dollars 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 much 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 the US 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 all the shots in the handling of the overzealous American Zionist, the corruption of him with Israeli money, and the ultimate abandonment of him to a life in prison, as Eitan and his subordinates escaped safely back to Israel. In his book on the affair, Territory of Lies, Wolf Blitzer describes Eitan as a "cold-blooded master spy." Pollard is quoted as blaming his capture on Eitan's "stupidity" and "greed," calling him "criminally irresponsible." Pollard also accuses him of having demanded classified information to use against Israeli cabinet ministers, a demand which Pollard says he refused. Eitan, in the midst of coalition negotiations this week, was unavailable to be interviewed for this article. In the wake of the Pollard affair, he was considered a villain by much of the Israeli public. "It would have been a lot harder for him to get elected 20 years ago," Porat allows, "but in this campaign he was seen as a serious man with a great record that included one operation that was unsuccessful. To say the least." THIS WEEK the Pensioners Party, as expected, recommended to President Moshe Katsav that Olmert be given first crack at forming a government. The party also presented Olmert with its coalition demands: restoration of the cuts in old-age benefits made by the Sharon government, followed by a gradual 25% increase in these benefits, including extra aid to the elderly poor; a doubling of government subsidies for medicine; and passage of a quasi-constitutional Basic Law barring legislation harmful to the aged. This is what the Pensioners Party promised to do; what's still up in the air is how the party will vote on Olmert's historic "convergence" plan for withdrawal from about 90% of the West Bank, which would include the uprooting of as many as 70,000 settlers. The Pensioners Party has been all over the map, so to speak, on this issue. During the campaign Eitan was quoted as saying, "I told Arik: There must be complete separation from the Palestinians because there's no basis for a compromise with them. We need to pull back to the '67 borders, taking into consideration the realities on the ground, and at this stage to remain in the Jordan Valley." Immediately after the election, though, the party line on the West Bank became the "road map," which is deader than ever now with Hamas in power. Yet when Eitan was asked on Yatzpan's variety show about his position on consolidation, he indicated disapproval: "When you converge, you pull yourself in. All my life I've tried to expand, to stretch out, so maybe this doesn't work out." But then, while meeting this week with Katsav, Eitan reportedly hinted at his endorsement of Olmert's withdrawal plan by pointing out that he helped convince Sharon of the necessity to get out of Gaza. Given the Pensioners Party membership's deep roots in the Labor Party, they probably lean toward supporting convergence. But Eitan, with his spymaster's aversion to candor and instinct for misdirection, may not genuinely show his hand on this supreme controversy until the time comes for a Knesset vote on it. More importantly 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, and with the economy growing again, the Pensioners Party, considered a must-have in any coalition, is almost certain to make good on its campaign promise to win solid budget increases for Israel's elderly. "It's clear they'll succeed - the agenda has changed," says Tel Aviv University Prof. Michal Shamir, an expert on Israeli politics. "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, Shamir stresses, there's very little voter loyalty to any party anymore, so there are no safe bets, certainly not for a political newcomer, in the coming elections. She thinks the Pensioners Party was a fluke. "It offered a way station for a lot of people who didn't know who to vote for, and who didn't decide until the last couple of days, or even until they actually got inside the polling booth. If I were a gambler, I'd bet that the Pensioners Party won't be such a success next time." Maybe not. But then who would have bet that the Pensioners Party would be such a success this time?