The Voters Retired

The massive vote for an unknown party, the Pensioners, demonstrates that Israel is fed up with the same old governmental corruption and economic failures. But should the focus on the public sector come too quickly, there runs the risk of a another, yet different, economic crisis.

When Rafael Eitan entered the Knesset in 1992, he brought the seven dwarves in with him, but then the public at least knew who Raful was and what his worldview was. When Yosef Lapid dragged in 13 unknowns behind him into the Knesset in 2003, the public knew precisely what his and Avraham Poraz's plans were. But those who voted for the Pensioners Party Tuesday did not know anything. They did not know the person who heads the party, who its Knesset hopefuls were, whether the party is on the left or right, or what they think about the economy or the convergence plan. And all of that worked in their favor.

The public is fed up with "corrupt politicians," and it was for precisely that reason that a party that no one knows became desirable. They have not had time to be "polluted" by politics, after all, and therefore, are not corrupt. They are above all suspicion. In addition, a vote for the pensioners was an antiestablishment protest for many young people who are fed up with politics across the board. Voting for the retirees suited those who feel alienated and detached as well as those who believe that they are getting screwed all the time anyway, so it does not matter who is in the government.

Another reason for the party's astonishing success (seven Knesset seats) is that the retirees themselves (640,000 in all) realized that, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me." As a result, they voted in vast numbers for a party that will work specifically on their behalf on the (possibly false) assumption that the foreign policy issue is already sewn up, and that Ehud Olmert has a solid majority for carrying out his convergence plan in the West Bank.

The surprise from the opposite direction in this election was the Likud, which washed out. Who would have believed that the party that won 38 seats in the previous election and acted as if God had chosen it to rule would fall so hard. Where is Uzi Cohen today, the crowner of kings from the Likud Central Committee? The Likud ideology suffered a mortal blow. Perhaps today, Benjamin Netanyahu, Limor Livnat, Silvan Shalom and Reuven Rivlin will realize that the people of Israel is tired of the fear-mongering, threats and constant banging of war drums.

The public also punished Netanyahu for his economic program. The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu invented poverty in Israel - that there was no poverty before he became finance minister. Don't bother with facts and figures. This mystic belief will follow Netanyahu forever. He will never be able to prove that his 2003 economic plan saved the economy and society. He could not explain that had it not been for his program, there would have been many more poor and unemployed people and the economy would have been in a deep crisis. Netanyahu, who for some reason is considered a great communicator, failed in this aspect of public relations.

Now his greatest economic achievements are in jeopardy if the new coalition will consist of Kadima, Labor, Meretz, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners Party. Labor and Meretz will demand that the state budget and deficit be increased and tens of billions more be spent on all sorts of excellent projects. The public sector will be fattened up once again, while the private sector will once more be crushed by the tax burden. The great achievement of the diet that the public sector was put on (going from 55 percent to 50 percent of gross domestic product) will vanish quickly. The reduction of debt and interest rates and impressive increase in investment, growth and employment will also disappear.

Shas and UTJ will not be far behind Labor and Meretz. They will demand the restoration of cuts to child allowances, income support payments and stipends for full-time, married kollel yeshiva students. If that happens, the revolution of the shift from welfare to work will be reversed. It will once again be profitable to live off the state, without working - until the next crisis. And when that crisis comes, everyone - pensioners and social-welfare advocates alike - will shout out: Where was Netanyahu, who could have saved the day?

A program to reduce poverty and the income gap between rich and poor is absolutely necessary. But it must be implemented cautiously, responsibly, over time. And it must not be forgotten that the money that makes such a program possible is available in the budget as a result of Netanyahu's program. Anyone who takes steps that destroy economic growth will also destroy the war on poverty.