Behind the Headlines: with Elections Only Months Away, Parties Courting Immigrant Vote

Renewed speculation over early elections in Israel has focused the eyes of politicians and the public on the 200,000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Will they vote in large numbers and if so, how?

Will the immigrant vote change the course of Israeli politics? Will the existing parties benefit, or will a new immigrant party emerge?

Will the parties of the right win the votes cast by immigrants who fled the oppression of a Communist regime? Or will immigrants dissatisfied with the way they have been treated by the incumbent Likud regime cast ballots for the left-wing opposition?

Those are some of the questions being aired at the start of this election year.

Before the year ends, a new Knesset will be elected. Whether that happens in November, when the present Knesset’s term expires, or months sooner also could affect the number of emigres voting and how they cast their votes.

The two major political camps each claim that the former Soviet Jews prefer their political message.

Conventional wisdom has it that the immigrants’ traumatic experience with communism will send them veering toward the right.

But conservative observers, such as former prisoner of conscience Yuli Edelstein, believe that the immigrants will not think in terms of right or left before casting their votes, but rather of their personal well-being.

Others say that no partisan loyalties will have been formed in time for the next elections. The immigrants will constitute the largest-ever floating vote.

PARTIES PUSHING THEIR MESSAGES

Political parties on both right and left are wasting no time to gather in the floaters. Each is pushing its own message.

Activists of Mapam, the United Workers Party, tell the olim that the only cure for rising unemployment is a change of government.

Supporters of Tehiya, which favors annexing the West Bank, organize bus trips across the “Green Line” to convince the olim that giving up any territory could jeopardize their security.

Peace Now has organized similar trips to send the message that only territorial concessions can bring peace to the region.

Dr. Aharon Fein, director of the Jerusalem Polls Institute, conducted a survey which showed that 36 percent of immigrants from the former USSR have still not decided how they will vote.

About 25 percent said they would vote for the left, and slightly more than a third expressed loyalty to the right. Only 1 percent of the olim would vote for the religious parties.

But the religious parties are investing heavily in what they call “spiritual absorption of immigrants.” Unofficially, though, the religious parties say they do not pin much hope on the immigrant voters.

All other parties, except for the Communists and the Arab parties, expect to gain from the new wave of aliyah.

The Fein poll confirms Edelstein’s gut feeling that immigrant voting patterns will not be determined by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but by more personal issues.

If the olim have found jobs and housing, they will vote for the establishment. If not, they will vote for the alternative.

AN ELECTION CAMPAIGN IN RUSSIAN

Activists of the Labor Party, the left-wing Citizen Rights Movement and Mapam say that because the majority of voters from the former Soviet Union are educated and intelligent, they are well aware of the difference between the Israeli left and Soviet communism.

But activists from the right-wing Tehiya, Tsomet and Moledet parties say their very education and intelligence will persuade them that a country with narrow borders cannot survive.

Most parties have staffed their olim outreach headquarters with earlier immigrants from what was the Soviet Union, like Ya’acov Feitelson, a former mayor of the West Bank town of Ariel, who came to Israel in the early 1970s. He wants to represent Russian immigrants in the next Knesset as a Tehiya politician.

Alex Glasman, who arrived in 1973, heads the Likud immigrant office. Shai Gruenspan, who came here in 1974, does the same job for Mapam.

Labor has chosen one of its big guns, Yossi Geinossar, a former head of the General Security Service, known popularly as the Shin Bet. Geinossar immigrated to Israel more than 30 years ago, at the age of 12, but he still speaks Russian fluently.

He believes that 70 percent of the new immigrants have not yet made up their political minds and can be persuaded in any direction.

Even Gil Samsonov, a Likud spokesman, shares Edelstein’s view that the success of the absorption process will determine the immigrant vote.

Successful absorption means support for the present leadership. Unemployment and housing problems will turn the immigrants away in search of other leaders.

So far, most of the wooing has been in the Russian-language dailies and weeklies, since most immigrants cannot yet cope with the Hebrew media.

If the election date is advanced, the struggle to reach Russian-speaking voters will intensify. It will be the first time in Israel’s short history that much of an election campaign is conducted in a foreign language.

IMMIGRANT PARTY COULD BE SUCCESSFUL

In theory, Israeli Arab voters translate into 12 to 14 Knesset seats, which would make them a major factor.

But the Arabs have never managed to concentrate their potential political power. They have fragmented their votes among the Communist and the Zionist parties.

“It may well be that if one of the immigrants establishes a no-nonsense immigrant political movement, he could gain a number of Knesset seats,” Edelstein said.

“An immigrant party which would say, ‘They don’t give us, so let’s take what we deserve ourselves,’ is likely to be quite successful,” he said.

If all immigrants from the former Soviet Union vote for one party — an immigrant party, for example — they could become a major political force, with seven or eight Knesset seats.

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