Pensioners' No. 2 Vows to Nix 'Netanyahu's Edicts'

Yaakov Ben Yizri, No. 2 on the Pensioners' Party list, looks like he's been reborn. After the party stunned everyone by winning seven seats in Tuesday's elections, the 78-year-old had an hour and a half of sleep followed by a full day's schedule.

He worked on a hotline yesterday morning, answering questions about pensions from hundreds of people nearing retirement age. After that, he went out for an interview with a journalist, traveled to Jerusalem to participate on a panel discussing pensions, and in the evening attended a celebration organized by the party in Tel Aviv.

The party may be led by Rafi Eitan, but Eitan, an expert on defense matters, does not pretend to compete with Ben Yizri's knowledge of pensions. The No. 2 sees as his main goal the changing of the far-reaching pension reforms enacted by former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The Pensioners Party will waste no time in repairing the greatest damage ever inflicted on Israeli pensioners," he said. "We will abolish Netanyahu's edicts."

Ben Yizri came to prominence six years ago in the pensioners' campaign against the Finance Ministry's decision to cancel benefits bestowed by the "yellow slip" agreement, which was signed by then-Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz and then-finance minister Avraham Shochat.

The campaign was aimed against not only the treasury, but also, or maybe primarily, the leaders of the Histadrut, who Ben Yizri accused of capitulating to treasury policy that harmed the pensioners. He said that Peretz used his full strength to fight for them.

Peretz's representatives and treasury officials agreed a year ago that people who retired between 1987 and 1996 would not get the extra payments stipulated in the "yellow slip" agreement. "The number of pensioners who retired between those years is dropping, and today there are only about 4,500 left, but for me it's a matter of principle," Ben Yizri said. "Even if there are very few left, we mustn't abandon them. Restoring the pensioners' lost respect is my first mission as a Knesset member".

Additionally, Ben Yizri is demanding that pension rights of widows and widowers be equalized. "Today, the widow of a pension fund member is entitled to a pension 60 percent of what her husband would have been entitled to. Widowers, however, are discriminated against; they are only entitled to 30 percent of what their wives would have been getting," he said. "There is no reason for this difference, which was decided years ago, when the number of male wage earners was much higher than the number of working women."

A few years ago, Peretz managed to get the Knesset to pass a law equalizing payments to widows and widowers. The new law did not last long, however. Netanyahu had it canceled. "Now that we have the power, we'll put the clock back and renew this legislation as soon as possible."

Another issue that Ben Yizri intends to tackle is right at the center of Netanyahu's pension reform - the raising of the retirement age to 67. "Raising the retirement age, which was done very hastily, with no proper public debate, harmed all salaried workers, but especially women, who previously could retire at 60.

We will ask to meet the treasury heads to discuss how this harmful measure can be canceled. The same goes for other blows against the pensioners, such as charges the funds levy for services, and an administration charge of 1.5 percent of premium payments, which will soon be raised to 2 percent."

Ben Yizri also intends to target pension payments paid by the National Insurance Institute. "Not only Netanyahu cut the payments," he said. "In the past decade, they have gone down by 35 percent, and they are not linked to the cost of living index. Who can live on an old-age pension of NIS 1,300-1,800 per month?"

According to Ben Yizri, a few months ago the old-age pension was cut by 4 percent, but the treasury agreed to raise it again by 2.5 percent. "We intend to get the remaining 1.5 percent back too," he said.

"Those were five stormy years, full of strikes," his friends reminisced. "It's hard to forget the workers' riots at the prestigious Zamenhof branch in Tel Aviv, during a strike of health fund administrative workers that he initiated. Ben Yizri never made political calculations, even though he owed his position to the party."

Four years ago, Ben Yizri was expelled from the Labor Party. He says it was because he was suspected of having connections with another party. This was the catalyst for forming the Pensioners Party.