Leaving the Parliamentary Limelight

About three years after the Pensioners Party won seven seats in the Knesset, thanks to a mass-protest vote, its electorate decided to protest once again - and sent its members home. Now, at 82, the chairman of the party, Minister Rafi Eitan, has plenty of time to plan for the future.

"I have a profession, I'm a sculptor," he says. "An amateur sculptor, it's true. When I reached the age of 80, I decided to retire from business and concentrate on sculpture."

His iron and bronze sculptures are regularly on display in Moshav Beit Dagan. Eitan has difficulty remembering whether on Weizmann Street or Begin Street. "There were periods when I sculpted animals, there were periods when I sculpted faces, there were periods when I did everything in an abstract way. That's how it happens, according to the junk I find. That's my main pastime."

There are also his former agricultural business activities in Central America - "I transferred them all to a trustee, and now I'll get back to them" - and, in spite of everything, there still is the Pensioners Party: "Maybe I'll remain at the head of it. If there's anyone who wants to devote all his time to it, I have no problem with that. I'll help anyone who is involved because I'm convinced that the Pensioners Party, a ministry of pensioners' affairs, must remain. Although the pensioners disappointed us and didn't vote for us."

Maybe you disappointed them?

Eitan: "If there were people who disappointed them, they could have replaced the people. Not just I - we replaced people. We came up with new people. You don't disappoint people because of a lack of activity or more activity. The disappointment was with the people."

However, according to a January report by the Ken Lazaken pensioners' rights group, the Pensioners Party was not active enough. Indeed, the report claims that the three MKs who actually did the most work on behalf of the country's retired population were from Labor, Meretz and Kadima. Furthermore, two Pensioners Party MKs - Health Minister Yacov Ben Yizri and Yitzhak Galanti, chairman of the Knesset Labor, Social Affairs and Health Committee - were even condemned for their lack of support for draft bills that could have benefited the pensioners.

The decision of the MKs who resigned from the party - Moshe Sharoni, Elhanan Glazer and Sarah Marom-Shalev - to join forces with Arcadi Gaydamak did not help either. At the time Eitan described the move as "political corruption."

In any event, he is still angry about the criticism his party has received: "Notice that we came out with the issue of rehabilitating elderly patients after they recover [from lingering illness] - one of the most serious problems of the elderly. And we issued regulations that stipulate that health maintenance services must deal with rehabilitation. In other words, there were a large series of achievements, including some in the making, so that to say that we didn't do anything is simply either ignorance or wickedness."

In September 2007 Eitan predicted in an interview with Haaretz that "in the next term, we'll have 10 seats." He also declared: "I personally am planning to continue with my political activity until the age of 90, like Shimon Peres."

Last week's elections changed his plans, however. "I'm still disappointed. Now I look at the major cities - Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Everywhere we received 5-6 percent of the votes. Where didn't we get votes? In the periphery. But most of the elderly live in the major cities, that's why it's hard for me to understand how we didn't pass the electoral threshold."

Maybe you neglected the periphery.

"Since we're a small party, we couldn't be everywhere. We concentrated on 30 main points."

'It's hard to be Peres'

Now, since Rafi Eitan has been left outside the political turmoil, he is free to watch from the sidelines: "I understand that [Benjamin] Bibi Netanyahu, with all his organizational power, is trying to create a government even before the issue has gone to the president. And according to what I've heard on the news, and from my fellow parliamentarians, the moment he has made agreements with all his factions, he will go to Kadima, to Tzipi [Livni], and suggest that she join his government. And if that's true, maybe that's a solution. I don't know what's happening meanwhile with Tzipi. I understand that she's making every effort to get the president to ask her to form the coalition."

What, in your opinion, will Peres do?

"That's hard for me to say," he laughs. "It's hard to be Shimon Peres ... He'll try to decide between being a previous member of Kadima and preserving the neutrality of a president. He'll have a hard time. In my opinion, he won't have a choice: If push comes to shove, he'll have no choice but to choose Bibi."

With respect to the negotiations with the Palestinians and relations with the United States, Eitan thinks it makes no difference who heads the next government. "As long as Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian entity - I'm deliberately not saying the Palestinian Authority - they're incapable of reaching an agreement with us. They're simply incapable of it. Because anyone who wants to come to any kind of agreement with us will be murdered. I'm saying that from experience. What's happening today in the Gaza Strip - it would happen in Judea and Samaria without our security control there. Therefore, the Americans are also incapable of reaching any kind of reasonable agreement between us and the Palestinians.

"The only choice that remains - and this has been my personal opinion for years - is to do what [Ariel] Arik Sharon did, to go according to the road map. And according to the road map, the next stage is a Palestinian state within temporary borders. In Gaza they've already been given that. So now we have to create, in agreement with the Americans or even without their agreement, the temporary borders of the Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. To leave for ourselves all the security areas that we need, to get out of other areas and to tell the Palestinians: Stew in your own juices. That's my opinion. I expressed that opinion to [former U.S. president George] Bush very clearly."

Eitan believes that even the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, is likely to agree to such a move. "Lieberman is a right-winger when it's worthwhile. Lieberman is more flexible than anyone else - that's my opinion. First of all, he's a very practical and very realistic person. In my view, he will be ready to accept any logical solution, on condition that Nokdim [Lieberman's place of residence] remains in the Jewish state.

"If I were in his position, I would choose the Foreign Ministry. That enables him to have a connection - and he's suitable for this - with the entire world, and [to be involved in] strengthening relations with Russia, with the countries of the former Soviet Union, which is very important for us. Connections with the Far East? He's also well suited to that."

The role of defense minister is less suitable for Lieberman, in Eitan's opinion. "I would always prefer someone who has spent some time inside the defense establishment. Every profession requires you to have thousands of details in your head, and I don't think Lieberman has that. Amir Peretz didn't have it ... So, I would always prefer a former defense person."

Although he believes that Ehud Barak was an "unequivocally outstanding" defense minister, during the operation in Gaza, political considerations tainted the decisions of the government and the cabinet. Indeed, Eitan even wrote the attorney general that, "some of those who conducted such an impressive military and diplomatic campaign until the final days went back to acting like politicians. We're all human beings, flesh and blood - and there are two people serving in the cabinet who want to be elected prime minister."

Barak's mistake

Concerning Barak's initiative to move up the elections, on the other hand, Eitan does not mince words: "One of the mistakes he made was pushing the whole system into elections. As a result of that, he now has 12 seats. He could have stayed until there was an indictment against [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert. He could have remained with 19 seats, been defense minister, done his thing, prepared the party for elections and gone to elections when he was ready."

On the subject of his friend the prime minister, who was forced to resign, Eitan has only good things to say. "He was an outstanding prime minister. In terms of conducting the cabinet meetings, bringing up subjects and understanding details - in my opinion, he was one of the best. How should I put it? It's a shame, it's a tragedy for us that he's leaving." And, he adds: "As long as a person has not been convicted in a trial and no verdict has been issued, for me that person is innocent."

Lieberman, who is suspected of criminal activity, is also innocent in Eitan's eyes: "As long as the attorney general has not ruled that he is barred from serving as a government minister, he can head any ministry, in my opinion." Eitan qualifies this by noting, however, that the appointment of Lieberman as finance minister would put him in charge of his own investigators from the tax authority.

At the present time, as a cabinet member, Eitan is involved in the negotiations for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Recently, he was quoted in the media as saying that it is possible that a deal for his release will be completed by the end of Olmert's term.

"At this point I have nothing to add," he insists, "and I believe it's better not to say anything, for the benefit of Gilad Shalit."

He also prefers to keep mum about the attack on a nuclear installation in Syria in 2007, and the assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus a year ago.

You were well trained in the Mossad.

"What do they claim about me in the party? That I didn't know how to publicize our achievements enough, because I worked as I did in the Mossad. There's some truth to that."