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(Rptg correcting name in para eight)

Written by: Staff
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TEL AVIV, Mar 29 (Reuters) With champagne and harmonica music, Israeli pensioners celebrated their new party's surprise election showing -- until their 79-year-old leader said it was time to go to bed.

In a shock to Israel's long-dominant establishment parties, voters in yesterday's election put Gil, which stands for ''Pensioners for You,'' the far-right Yisrael Beitenu and other little-known groups on the political map.

Political analysts attributed the shift to growing public disaffection with the major parties and low voter turnout.

''No doubt the Likud has suffered a tough blow,'' said former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing party that dominated Israel for decades was projected to get only about 12 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Netanyahu said he did the best he could with a party left devastated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to bolt Likud to form centrist Kadima.

Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who took the helm of Kadima after Sharon suffered a massive stroke in January, claimed victory today, but his party won by a much narrower margin than expected.

Supporters chanted ''Ehud, Ehud'' after Olmert declared victory, then headed off home.

''He (Sharon) probably would have said we could have done better, but let's get to work,'' said one Olmert aide.

In a first for a party championing the rights of the elderly, Gil was tipped by exit polls to take 8-10 seats in parliament and has big plans for the future.

''We may join a coalition government led by Kadima, if our needs, such as medical cost reductions and guaranteed pensions, are met,'' said Hefseiva Ben-Nun, a 66-year-old former teacher and Gil party leader.

ULTRANATIONALIST The most successful of the surprise winners on the night appeared to be Moldovan-born ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman.

His Yisrael Beitenu was projected to take 13 to 14 seats, putting it ahead of Likud.

Lieberman's campaign was especially popular among Russian speakers, employing catchy slogans like: ''Olmert: Nyet, Netanyahu: Nyet, Lieberman: Da''.

David Iosphe, who moved to Israel from Ukraine in 1978, said he liked Lieberman's straight talk and dismissed Netanyahu and Olmert as ''career politicians''.

''Lieberman is the only person who knows what our country needs,'' the 68-year-old said at Yisrael Beitenu's post-election party in Jerusalem.

The mood was sombre at Likud's headquarters. Party members milled about inside a giant convention centre with only a few dozen supporters on hand.

Members of centre-left Labour said they were happy with the party's showing in second place, because it would give them clout to influence policy -- but Labour's showing appeared little better than in the last general election in 2003.

When word spread of Gil's electoral gains, one elderly man at its headquarters in Tel Aviv whipped out his harmonica and danced a slow post-election jig.

But before long, Gil leader Rafael Eitan, famed in Israel for capturing Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 and later for masterminding an Israeli spying operation in the United States that caused a crisis with Washington, called it a night.

''In recent days we have been working around the clock. There comes a point where you have to go home for a rest,'' 79-year-old Eitan said.

REUTERS PDS KP0800

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