In Israel, Pensioners Party Surprises With Gains
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Israel's government has formerly begun efforts to create a governing coalition. The new government is expected to be led by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his centrist Kadima Party.
But a new party, who's only issue is boosting pension benefits for the elderly, is also likely to play an important role.
The Pensioners Party, which now has seven seats in the new parliament, is led by a retired Israeli spy who helped capture Nazi war criminals and handle Jonathan Pollard, the former Pentagon analyst now jailed in the U.S. for espionage.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
At 79, retired Israeli secret agent Rafi Eitan still garners a kind of Bond-esque respect here. He handled some of the most famous covert operations by the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.
Eitan commanded the covert team that tracked down Nazi Adolph Eichmann in 1960, snatching him from a street in Buenos Aires and bringing one of the Holocaust's masterminds to Israel, where he was tried and hanged.
These days, the diminutive Eitan, with his thick round glasses and thinning white hair, is leading a totally different fight; for increased benefits for the elderly.
At the Pensioner's Party office in downtown Tel Aviv, Eitan wears a bemused, slightly overwhelmed smile at all the post-election attention. Surrounded by news reporters, he thanks supporters for helping the new party win a surprise seven seats in parliament, and he plays coy when asked if the party is ready to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about joining any Kadima coalition.
Mr. RAFI EITAN (Pension Party leader): (Foreign spoken)
WESTERVELT: Olmert? Who's he? Who's he? Eitan says, tongue in cheek.
What was first seen as merely a protest party with little chance of winning has now gained legitimacy and power. Pensioners Party founder Nava Arad says the group is poised to become a permanent political force for Israel's elderly.
Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) The high cost of medicine, the cuts to the elderly, it's shameful. A disgrace. This will now end. It will spread to other places and have the largest lobby in the country.
WESTERVELT: To many analysts, the Pensioners' strong showing is seen as part of a backlash in Israel against a political fixation on security and recent economic policies that chipped away at the Jewish state's once vaunted social safety net.
Forty-something Tel Aviv attorney Ron Ozeri(ph) believes the Pensioners got wide support from many younger Israelis who want to once again take care of their elders.
Mr. RON OZERI (Attorney, Tel Aviv): In the last few years the government cut down their income. These people built our country. They worked hard. They are our fathers and grandfathers; we just love them, we think they deserve political power and they deserve to regain their political rights.
WESTERVELT: Asaf Levine, a hired strategist and ad man, helped shape the party's campaign. He says the Pensioners are being courted by political big-wigs in search of coalition partners. An alliance with Kadima, he says, is certainly possible, and he insists that party's emphasis on the future of the occupied West Bank won't distract the Pensioners from focusing on the issues that got them elected.
Mr. ASAF LEVINE (Strategic Consultant): No matter what the vote will be for, the most important thing for us will be the social situation in Israel; for the elderly people, for the poor people, and for the young generation as well. That's our mandate, and we're not going to play around with that.
WESTERVELT: But the party's leader, Rafi Eitan, has said he wants to tackle at least one other issue outside of his pension power platform, trying to trying to win the release of Jonathan Pollard. As a spy, Eitan recruited and handled the civilian Pentagon analyst who's now jailed for life in the U.S. for passing secrets to Israel.
Eitan is one of two unindicted co-conspirators listed in the legal case against Pollard. So if Eitan ever tries to take his elder power message to the U.S., he could face FBI questioning about his role in the spy case that severely strained U.S.-Israeli relations 20 years ago.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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