Graybeards Pull Off Israel Election Upset

Just as the polls closed in Israel last month, I was finishing up listening to BBC Radio, planning to switch the dial to hear the first exit poll predictions on a local station.

But exactly as the clock struck 10, I was amazed to hear the BBC itself switching to Tel Aviv for live election coverage. Naturally, the three main Israeli television channels were fighting tooth and nail to claim the largest audience share, but the internal Israeli political situation was also No. 1 on all the international news stations my TV cable caught. Pundits and politicians were broadcasting interviews to New York, London and Atlanta, happy to bask in the warm limelight of mass media.

And it only took a very few minutes for the great upset of 2006 to become obvious: Israeli politics were shaken to their core by dark horse newcomers belonging to a party few had heard of. Close to a quarter of a million Israelis voted for the Pensioners Party, also known as GIL (age), a party run by nonpoliticians that didn’t even exist three months ago; a party founded only after the regular political parties ignored the pleas of its constituents and relegated their demands low on the totem poll. This party’s platform doesn’t contain one word about the burning issues of security, peace or national borders. It’s a sectarian party whose raison d’etre is the selfish concerns of its own electorate.

In fact, the platform of the Pensioners Party focused exclusively on their own hearts and their own pocketbooks: pension rights, social security, health care improvements, drug coverage, nursing home expenditures. Not exactly the most explosive issues in the explosive Middle East.

Sure, the networks would dissect the results to report that Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party had squeaked into first place in the absence of its founder, who was knocked out of political life by a stroke. They would mull over the dramatic decline of the Likud Party led by ever-ambitious former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They would analyze the rise of the far right, the decline of the far left and the shifting power balances in Israel’s 120-member parliament.

But these were all eclipsed for the whole country by the emotional story of a group of exultant seniors who might look more at home on a park bench than childishly pouring champagne over each other at a victory celebration.

For the first time, a retired persons party had garnered enough votes not only to enter the parliament but to win seven seats. The big parties — the same politicians who had hitherto ignored them — soon began sheepishly begging at the pensioners’ door offering incentives to join a coalition. Like ancient societies that bestowed power and honor upon their elders, it became the turn of the graybeards to return triumphant.

How they scored this upset is a treatise in brilliant strategy. Recognizing that many young voters are disillusioned by current politicians and disappointed in this year’s tedious campaign, the old turned to the young for support. Instead of not voting at all, they argued, make your vote count by doing a good deed for a worthy cause. They hired young advisers, garnered young volunteers and spread the word at coffee shops and places of entertainment.

But it was the new tool of the now generation — the Internet — that perhaps clinched the victory.

By a quirk of legal interpretation, the Internet is not covered under the Israeli law prohibiting electioneering in the media. This allowed youth-targeted sites like Nana, which receives about 320,000 hits a day, mostly from those ranging in age from 18 to 21, freedom to give heavy exposure to the Pensioners Party. Running a series of articles under the title, “The Young Vote for the Old,” streaming videos where famous young entertainers adopted the cause of the aged in need and opening blogs, this Web site, largely staffed by young people, promoted an intense electoral fad that has altered the Israeli political map.

Articles on the senior party appeared with increasing frequency, many written by a young law student helping to finance her studies by moonlighting as a reporter. To what extent did this unexpected deluge of information about the “invisible” elderly help to sway hitherto disenchanted, cynical or ambivalent young voters to cast ballots for gray power? The phenomenon could have been merely a symbolic protest or it could have had sentimental implications, as evidenced by people quoted as casting a ballot “to help my grandparents.”

Now these grandparents have won themselves a potentially key role on a wide range of crucial issues for Israel’s body politic.

Helen Schary Motro teaches at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law and wrote “Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada” (Other Press, 2005).