TEL AVIV — The first thing you notice about the Olympia Restaurant in Tel Aviv is that, unlike just about every other trendy place in town, curtains are drawn over the windows and there is no outdoor seating.
The second thing is that on any given day, Israel's power elite can be seen sitting munching on such unlikely combinations as schnitzel and olives, talking about Israel's latest march toward some political brink or another.
The dowdy curtains that keep the intruding eyes away and the elite chatter go hand-in-hand because what transpires at the Olympia is, well, for insiders. It is a place where political blood enemies can sit across from each other without being gawked at much and without anyone tattling on the goings-on.
"Confidence is a main course here," says owner Moshe Francis. "This is a kind of club where outsiders can come, of course, but they don't feel comfortable."
On a recent Thursday--a prime power lunch day--Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor Party candidate for prime minister, dined with his wife, Leah, and friends. A table away sat Ronni Milo, the police minister who heads the campaign of the Likud Party, which is running incumbent Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Milo was hunching over a pink tablecloth with a Labor campaign functionary to work out a "peace treaty" that would keep hecklers away from rival campaign rallies. Nearby, a former head of the Mossad, Israel's spy agency, wiped his mouth and strolled out the door. The head of a major conglomerate tinkered with a beer. A pair of columnists from competing newspapers traded gossip. It was a perfect Olympia day.
"You can talk to anyone here, you can hear things, but no one lets what goes on here get out the door. That's a kind of rule," said Francis, winking knowingly.
At the Olympia, Israel reveals a more modest self than the one perpetually placed at the center of an international storm: It is also a small country of small-town politicians and business leaders. A city like Tel Aviv perhaps needs--and has--only one place like the Olympia because its seating for 100 fits just about everyone who counts.
Because the Olympia attracts Israel's elite, it also attracts a relative wealth of celebrities from outside Israel. The guest books of past and present luminaries include the signatures of late composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, actor Peter Ustinov, writer Jean-Paul Sartre and conductor Zubin Mehta.
The 32-year-old restaurant gained a name for itself partly because Rabin made it his favorite haunt. Even before he served his lone stint as prime minister in the mid-1970s, he lunched there. Thursday was his preferred day because that was when the government in Jerusalem usually ended the week's work, and he could hit Tel Aviv to relax.
In the current hard-fought election, the Olympia is an oasis of tranquillity. Candidates on the stump have had to weather hecklers at nearly every turn. Personal appearances are an important ritual even in what has become an electronically sophisticated campaign.
The campaign is traditionally colorful, in part, because of the diverse parties that choose to run. There's one representing taxi drivers and another strictly for women. Regulators barred one party, headed by a man who said God gave him a mission to build a new biblical Jewish Temple on the current site of a major Muslim mosque.
Under the ironclad custom that for every two Israelis, three opinions are expressed, Russian immigrants are putting out three parties; far-right parties have chimed in with four; the Arab Israeli voter can choose among three parties appealing to this large ethnic minority, and three religious parties are pledging God's blessing in return for votes.
Labor is focusing on Rabin as a kind of man on a white horse who can save Israel and has tried to paint him as the centrist alternative between Shamir and the left wing (Labor apologized to a leading leftist politician for referring to him, in an advertisement, as extremist). Likud tried to fix Shamir similarly in the center--between "leftist" Labor and the far right.
Likud has also attacked the alleged drinking problems of Rabin and revived stories of an attack of nerves Rabin suffered on the eve of the 1967 Middle East War, when he was armed forces chief of staff.
"Oh, they've been so dirty," said Leah Rabin as she rose to pay her bill. "And I think it will get worse. They're desperate."
She left, and Ronni Milo came over. "You see, we're all friends. I was just saying hello to Leah Rabin. We all agree, this is the best place to eat. It's national unity!"
Francis, 49, inherited the Olympia from his father, a Greek restaurateur. It holds down an undistinguished corner on busy Carlbach street near the Defense Ministry.
Despite hints that he has heard and seen enough intrigue to fill a library, Francis has declined to write his memoirs. "No hear, no talk, no nothing," he said, drawing an imaginary zipper across his lips.
He has set up a pool betting system for the elections in which his customers put money on the number of Knesset, or Parliament, seats that will be taken by major and minor parties. For all his years catching snippets of conversation, Francis has never won the pool.