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Behind the Headlines: All of Israel’s Political Parties in a Race to Court Immigrant Vote

With Knesset elections little more than three months away, Israel’s political parties have begun an all-out campaign to win the hearts — and votes — of new immigrants.

Pollsters estimate that immigrants from the republics of the former Soviet Union could decide up to eight or nine Knesset seats, assuming that the olim translate their numbers into votes on June 23.

Getting these votes is crucial, say members of every political party, because even one seat could change the Knesset’s volatile balance of power.

The established parties are competing not only against one another, but also against the newly formed immigrant party, the National Movement for Democracy and Aliyah. While forecasts vary, in at least one election poll conducted in January, 31 percent of the new immigrants surveyed indicated they would support an immigrant party.

But whether they are established or new to the political scene, each party has had to start with fundamentals: locating the new immigrants.

“Russian olim tend to move around a great deal in the first year or two,” said Yisrael Medad, an aide to Knesset member Geula Cohen of the pro-settlement Tehiya party.

“While they may begin life here in an absorption center or hotel, they ultimately move to a new neighborhood, or even a new city. Consequently, the demographics of many neighborhoods are in a state of flux, making it difficult to identify potential voters,” Medad explained.

Each party has assigned at least a few staff people and volunteers to the task of finding the olim and reaching out to them.

“Through surveys, we’ve learned that many new Russian immigrants live up north, in places like Carmiel and Haifa, and we focus our energies accordingly,” said David Markish, a member of the Labor Party’s Department of Russian Immigration.

EXPLAINING ‘POLITICAL MAP OF ISRAEL’

Among Labor’s more ambitious outreach programs is a series of two-day seminars for immigrants.

One weekend last month, for example, party staffers and Knesset members visited a Jerusalem hotel housing Russian immigrants in order to acquaint the newcomers with Labor’s policies and politicians. The weekend included a meeting with Labor Knesset member Uzi Baram, various lectures and a field trip around Jerusalem.

Field trips for immigrants are also on Likud’s agenda. “We take them to Judea and Samaria to show them the territories’ importance to the security of the State of Israel,” said party spokesman Gil Samsonov.

In its immigrant outreach program, the left-wing Citizens Rights Movement “tries to explain the political map of Israel without the use of propaganda,” said Lessia Stein, who works in the party’s immigrant department.

At the moment, the CRM is placing a great deal of emphasis on educating olim about their human rights, she said, “because they usually don’t recognize that they’re entitled to these rights.

“We have always helped olim and are continuing to do so,” she said. “For example, we have three lawyers who assist immigrants, and if some immigrant organization is working for a good cause — such as building affordable housing — we try to help them.”

The one common denominator among the parties is their use of media campaigns. Every day, readers of Israel’s Russian-language newspapers and listeners of the Russian-language radio broadcasts are bombarded with advertisements from every conceivable party.

Usually, the ads address immigrants’ concerns about jobs and apartment mortgages, as well as the parties’ stand on the territories issue or the Palestinians.

In addition, diligent staffers spend a great deal of time disseminating positive stories about their parties’ activities, in the hope that the media will turn this “hasbara” into a feature story.

In an interesting twist, at least one party is trying to attract voters even before they step foot in Israel. The Labor Party, for one, maintains contacts with journalists in the formerly Soviet republics, and the party’s ads often appear in newspapers over there.

As to how much impact all this effort will have on the voting patterns of new immigrants remains to be seen. But if the opinion of one Jerusalem ulpan class is any indication, the parties may be in for a long haul.

All the olim, most of whom are academics in their 20s and 30s, nodded in agreement as 22-year-old Yuri summed up the political posturing: “Any way you slice it, it’s all a bunch of propaganda.”

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