- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

JERUSALEM — The biggest surprise of an Israeli election filled with surprises was the performance of the Pensioners’ Party, a newly formed and unheralded political bloc that emerged with seven seats — most going to men in their upper 70s.

No one was more shocked than the pensioners themselves, who find themselves confronting national questions they had not prepared for when they announced their one-issue campaign for increased pension rights two months ago.

“We haven’t formulated a policy about issues like the pullback from the West Bank,” said party leader Rafi Eitan, 79. The party will hold a caucus today to figure out what its policies actually are.

The outcome may determine whether the golden agers are invited to take part in a ruling coalition led by Kadima party leader Ehud Olmert, who yesterday began informal talks to find a parliamentary majority supporting his positions.

Mr. Olmert’s key campaign promise was to withdraw from most of the West Bank and unilaterally set Israel’s final borders if a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority fails to meet international demands that it recognize Israel. Kadima aides said yesterday they would take at least a year to finalize those plans.

Kadima, with 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, is expected to join forces with the Labor party, which finished second with 20 seats. Russian immigrant-led Yisrael Beitenu, with 12 seats, and Likud with 11 will likely go into opposition, meaning Mr. Olmert must find at least 13 more votes from among two religious parties, the leftist Meretz party, three Israeli Arab lists and the Pensioners.

If the aging parliamentarians get a Cabinet seat, it will likely go to Mr. Eitan, a former senior Mossad operative who played a major role in the 1960 capture in Buenos Aires of Adolf Eichmann, the Gestapo official in charge of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Most of the others on the party list are former union leaders, some of them quite vigorous.

The Pensioners’ Party was among more than 30 groupings to field candidates, and was regarded with the same amusement as the Green Leaf Party — which advocated the legalization of marijuana — and other niche groups. Pollsters missed the rise of the Pensioners until the last week of the campaign, when they predicted that, incredible as it sounded, the party might actually get two seats.

Analysts think that the party profited from the confusion created by the redrawing of Israel’s political map after Ariel Sharon abandoned the right-wing Likud and founded the centrist Kadima party, drawing in left-wing Labor stalwart Shimon Peres.

Uncertain where to deposit their votes, many chose to place them for safekeeping with the cheerful band of oldsters, even though no one knew what their politics are. A Tel Aviv man said that many of the young people exercising in his sports club said they would vote for the Pensioners.

“I think we radiate sincerity and credibility,” said Mr. Eitan.

Some analysts saw the vote for the pensioners reflecting a sense of humor that cut across party lines.

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