Pensioner Wannabes?

Israel's young politicos learn from old-timers

If it were up to high school students, one of the big winners of the upcoming elections would be those who fill the ranks of the Tzabar party. The broader public is almost certainly unfamiliar with the faction, but many teenagers have already had a chance to listen to party chairman Boaz Toporovsky, and they came away convinced.

After a string of experienced politicians spoke before a crowd of pupils at Tel Aviv's Ironi Yod Dalet high school, Toporovsky rose from his chair, took the microphone, let out a sigh, and opened his remarks. "Finally I get to talk to young people," he said, prompting insulting comments from the assembled older politicians who shared the stage with him. The young politico was quick to apologize. Then he delivered an impassioned speech describing the dire straits that are the lot of Israeli youth, who the moment they are discharged from the military "do not have a red cent to their ass, and [are faced with] astronomical university tuition fees - and we're not even factoring in mortgage payments and nurseries. [If] we youth are good enough to die in the army then we are also good enough to make decisions for ourselves."

His adamant remarks earned him applause from the crowd. Except that the Tzabar party, like a number of other political movements, has yet to make a dent into the public consciousness, especially during the recent period in which the fighting in Gaza drew most of the media coverage. After all, even if one of the party leaders pays a visit "to lend a shoulder to the residents of the south," the press will not take any interest in them, and the residents of the south in any event will not recognize them.

No fewer than 34 political parties submitted lists of candidacies to the Central Elections Committee for a spot in the next Knesset. Most of them are ostensibly known and familiar to the public. But the voter who stands in the polling booth on February 10, assuming that the elections will not be postponed, will find additional paper ballots belonging to tiny parties alongside the familiar big-party slips. Unfortunately for these parties, nobody has heard of them.

Up until three weeks ago, each of these parties toiled on their campaigns that perhaps could have yielded a breakthrough into the public consciousness. Now, after the fighting in Gaza threw a monkey wrench into all their plans, and given the minuscule budgets at their disposal, they are pursuing every avenue and every which way in order to garner attention, recognition, and if possible, voters.

If there is one common denominator among the smaller parties, it is their desire to duplicate the Pensioners party effect from the previous elections. At least two parties are pinning their hopes on Benjamin Zeev Herzl, "who was also considered a dreamer, and here his vision turned into reality," as Ya'akov Weiman, second on the slate of the Ahrayut ("responsibility") party, put it. "In all honesty, we are fighting the news media that is not covering us. One Internet site, for example, puts out a list of parties that voters can pick from, while insisting on not including our party on that list. But we believe in our way, and we are running our campaign primarily through parlor meetings, even though people have less of a desire to come and listen to us while the cannons are roaring," Weiman explained.

Ahrayut is led by Ya'akov Hesdai, the former chairman of the La'or movement. The party platform focuses on the need to alter the structure of government in Israel, redistribute the division of authority, enact a constitution and hold frequent referenda. "We examine each situation according to three criteria: Is it ethical, is it practical, and is it economically feasible?" added Weiman, who revealed that thus far 200 people have registered for party membership.

With no operating budget, Ahrayut officials are making do with television advertisements, and have printed few banners to be hung from apartment building balconies.

Tel Aviv University professor Gideon Doron has also established a political party, the "Israelis" party, whose centerpiece issue is the structure of government in Israel. "Our party arose out of an understanding that the political system is not functioning - not in terms of the decision-making process, and not in terms of the quality of Knesset members," says Doron, a proponent of electing regional representatives to the Knesset. He is also champions "an effective government of professionals, because ministers do not always understand what it is they are responsible for."

He is also in favor of, if possible, a constitution and gender equality.

Doron and those on his party slate, which includes academics as well as entrepreneurs - one of them is the founder of the "Homeless" Web site - are operating from a minuscule budget that comes primarily from their own pockets. "Nonetheless, we have all we need: public relations people, a spokeswoman, someone who is responsible for the creative aspects, and we are starting to film our television ads. The campaign is based on meetings with people, because it is clear to us that there is no point in trying to influence the agenda during such a period in any other way."

Like Weiman and many of the other parties, Doron is counting on apathetic voters, those who have yet to decide who to vote for.

Apathetic voters?

The occupant of the second slot on the Lazuz ("move") list, Yisrael Shtrekman, at one point counted himself among those same apathetic voters. Not long ago, he made plans to leave the country out of a sense of frustration. "But a meeting with the head of the party, Amnon Ze'evi, convinced me," he says.

Shtrekman, an electric technician who was billed as a "righteous man" by the investigative consumer television program Yatzata Tzadik, was fixing a broken-down product in Ze'evi's home when he was bitten by the political bug. "Amnon spoke to me, I read a bit of his interview, and I decided to go for it," he says. "The main idea is to fight public corruption and we set a goal for ourselves to wage a campaign against executive wages."

In an effort to avoid that same corruption, the Lazuz party list was chosen by way of lottery. Whoever wanted to register could do so via the Internet, and his name was thrown into the lottery. That is how Shtrekman won the second spot. "Ze'evi himself is not running, so nobody could say that he founded the party just so he can have a [Knesset] seat," Shtrekman explains, adding that the faction already has mechanisms in place designed to prevent cases of corruption and dissuade members from the enticements that are certain to come along in the event the party enters the Knesset. "Each member of the party signed a NIS 4 million guarantee that obligates that member to carry out the instructions issued by the party council in the event he is a member of Knesset. It's like a whip that says to our members "be careful so that what happened to the Pensioners once they reached the Knesset will not happen to you."

The Lazuz party is also filming its television advertisements, but the tight budget is forcing them to focus their campaign on the Internet. "It's like a wildfire," Shtrekman says. "I believe more and more people will join us."

In the Petah Tikva campaign headquarters of the party that advocates for the physically disabled, Koach L'hashpia ("strength to influence"), members have been hard at work on aiding disabled residents of the south since the outbreak of the fighting in Gaza. This week, party activists were fielding telephone calls from residents asking to be evacuated to the center of the country because of their difficulty in reaching bomb-proof rooms within seconds of a rocket siren. "This problem is part and parcel of the entire issue. Our goal is to become equal citizens of the state," says the party chief, Yochai Dok. "There are serious accessibility problems in this country, very low welfare payments for the disabled, and a laundry list of difficulties and problems that nobody bothers to deal with."

Power at the top

The next two senior party members, attorneys Yael Albeg and Nurit Buchnik-Hadif, speak at length about the physical and bureaucratic obstacles faced by the handicapped in Israel. "Enough! How much more can a lawyer fight the system on behalf of the disabled?" says Albeg. "This time, I want to do it from up top, from the Knesset."

The party is hanging its hopes on the more than 100,000 disabled voters in Israel, their relatives and others who are familiar with their lot. "We have potential, we are quality individuals who are in the midst of a struggle, and we don't care about working with any party in order to advance our interests," Dok says. "Maybe this time the young people who supported the Pensioners will give their votes to us."

Last week, the party posted signs depicting Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni sitting in wheelchairs. "People need to understand that we are not looking for a seat in the Knesset," Dok adds, smiling. "We are bringing ours from home."