KFAR SABA, Israel (May. 15)
“Don’t throw me away in my old age when my strength is diminished. Don’t abandon me,” said Yacov Ben-Yizri, Israel’s new health minister and a member of the Pensioners Party, quoting a passage from Psalms. Ben-Yizri, 78, emerged from 13 years of retirement to become a politician for the first time along with fellow members of the Pensioners Party who stunned the country — and themselves — by winning seven Knesset seats in Israel’s March election.
“Helping people is an inseparable part of the Torah,” Ben-Yizri told JTA in an interview at his home. But it’s a concept that increasingly has been lost in Israeli society, he said.
The party’s victory, however, may signal that voters are making social welfare issues a priority. Then again, as some political analysts suggest, their electoral success could be a fluke by a frustrated electorate looking for a protest vote.
Either way, the party has been quick to take advantage of its newfound power. During recent coalition negotiations, the party managed to restore pensioner benefits cut under the previous government, raise social security payments and decrease medical bills for the chronically ill.
They also secured two ministries Pensioner Affairs for the party’s leader, former Mossad spymaster Rafi Eitan, and Health for Ben-Yizri, who worked in the health care system for more than 30 years.
The party originally was not considered a serious contender, but with the help of a strategy team they ran a savvy campaign that tapped into voter alienation from the mainstream parties, especially among younger voters.
The pensioners ran on a straightforward platform, promising to restore pensioner benefits slashed under the previous government and to improve health care for the elderly. With some 500,000 Israelis living without retirement funds, they also promoted a law that would ensure that every Israeli has a pension.
When it became clear that many young people planned either not to vote or to cast a blank protest ballot, the party’s campaigners urged them to instead vote for the Pensioners Party.
More young people than pensioners voted for the party, its officials said. It’s not clear how many of them were voting out of compassion for their grandparents’ generation and how many simply were fed up with Israeli politics, tainted in recent years by an increasing number of corruption scandals.
Irit Avni, a yoga instructor in Tel Aviv, was among the party’s younger voters. She said both factors drove her to support the pensioners.
“It pains me to see how much has been taken away from them, and I’m also concerned about my own future,” she said.
Though she has voted for mainstream parties in the past, Avni has become disillusioned in recent years.
“They only care about their seats in government and their Volvos,” she said, referring to the cars government ministers receive. “They don’t really care about the state.”
The party is led by Eitan, 80, a white-haired man with large, plastic eyeglasses and a smug grin.
Younger voters might not realize that the jovial-looking grandfather type has a controversial past. The former Mossad agent was involved in kidnapping Adolf Eichmann in Argentina to bring him for trial in Jerusalem, and garnered negative press as Jonathan Pollard’s handler. He has not traveled to the United States in 20 years, fearing arrest.
No destitute pensioner, Eitan is a multimillionaire with extensive business links in Cuba and was a confidant of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Ben-Yizri, who along with the others in the party was active in pensioner organizations, sought out Eitan to lead the party. In addition to having a recognized name, Eitan had been their liaison with Sharon.
When Sharon fell into a coma in January, his successor, Ehud Olmert, gave the pensioners, who had asked to merge with Olmert’s Kadima Party, a low number on the party list, and they decided to run independently.
Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist, does not think the party represents a fundamental shift in Israeli politics.
“It is an interesting constellation that shows that a particular sector or group — if it can establish nationally that they have been victimized — can have political consequences in the short run,” he said.
The party tapped into a feeling in Israel that the country’s weakest sectors have been ignored in recent years, he said.
“There is a sense of economic policy without compassion,” he said.
Of the 750,000 pensioners in Israel, some 150,000 are below the poverty line, with some living on as little as $260 a month.
In the early days of the state, most of the country was made up of young immigrants working to create a new society, Ben-Yizri said.
“These same people built the country, helped shape its economy, security, culture, education and higher learning, and today they are between 70 and 75. As the life span increases, so does the state’s responsibility for the older generation,” he said.
Ben-Yizri doesn’t think the party is a one-hit wonder, but says they’ll go on to fight for a social agenda not just for senior citizens but for single mothers, the handicapped and others struggling for a political voice.
“We plan to blossom,” he said.