Still on the Sidelines (part 2): How Immigrants Cast Ballots May Determine Election Results

On Israel’s election day, Luda, a waitress at a Jerusalem cafe, will cast her vote for Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, Natan Sharansky’s new immigrant rights party.

Luda, who agreed to be interviewed provided that her real name was not used, was trained as a nurse.

But she will probably have to wait tables for the foreseeable future.

“In order to get a nursing license in Israel, I have to improve my Hebrew. I’m working on it, but it’s a slow process,” she says.

“In the meantime, I can’t work in my profession, and it’s frustrating. Waitressing doesn’t pay enough to buy an apartment, so my husband and I are just making do at the moment.

“Israel is an expensive place, and the government isn’t doing enough to help. Hopefully, if the immigrant party gets elected, things will be easier for all of us.”

Come May 29, the 400,000-plus eligible voters among the more than 600,000 olim who arrived from the former Soviet Union since 1989 will be taking such bread- and-butter issues with them to the ballot box.

For the first time, Israelis will vote directly for prime minister in addition to voting for the party of their choice in the separate balloting to fill the 120 Knesset seats.

In the race for premier – opinion polls show Prime Minister Shimon Peres narrowly ahead of his opponent, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu – the immigrants from the former Soviet Union could well be the deciding factor.

Aware of this fact, the larger political parties are working hard to woo the immigrants, whether they be newcomers or veteran Israelis.

Many of the parties have a “Russian” desk churning out Russian-language advertising, brochures and news releases on everything from the job market to mortgages for new immigrants.

At this stage, it is impossible to predict whether the effort will pay off in either the vote for prime minister or the Knesset balloting.

In the race for parliamentary representation, recent opinion polls indicate that Sharansky’s party will likely garner three or four Knesset seats.

One of these could conceivably go to Achadut Yisrael, the immigrant party headed by another immigrant, Ephraim Gur.

But, given their size as a voting bloc, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have the ability to elect another six or seven Knesset members.

It remains debatable whether Peres’ Labor Party, which 60 percent of the immigrants supported in the 1992 election, will get most of those remaining seats.

In addition to their pocketbook concerns, the immigrants are extremely security conscious, especially after a disproportionate number of them were injured or killed in recent terrorist attacks.

But while Netanyahu is running on the “Mr. Security” ticket, Peres’ recent decision to order the 16-day Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon could steal some of Netanyahu’s thunder.

Political observers say it is difficult to predict how the immigrants will vote.

“No one can really predict the numbers,” says Chemi Shalev, political correspondent for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv.

He believes that Sharansky’s party could play a crucial role in forging the next governing coalition.

“Who Sharansky aligns himself with will depend on the outcome of the elections. He has no justification to side with the opposition because he needs to influence government, to get improvements for immigrants. Being in the opposition would be a waste of time.”

Of those immigrants polled by the Tazpit Research Institute in late April, 36 percent said they would support Sharansky’s party, while 24 percent favored Likud and 20 percent favored Labor. The remainder said they would support smaller parties.

In the race for prime minister, 60 percent indicated they would vote for Peres.

“The Russians want respect, some recognition, appreciation for the contributions they are making to Israeli society, and they aren’t getting this recognition,” says Tazpit pollster Aharon Fein.

Although Sharansky’s initial support came from newer, unemployed immigrants, Fein says, “in the past several months even veteran immigrants feel that a small party may be able to accomplish more than having one or two representatives in a larger party.”

A decade after making aliyah, Sharansky, a Soviet Jewish activist, says he decided to throw his hat into the political ring last year because he felt that political change could not be accomplished from the sidelines.

As co-founder of the Zionist Forum, an advocacy group for Russian immigrants, “I tried to work in non-political ways,” he says. “Gradually, it became clear that I was coming to the limit of what could be achieved through non-political activities.”

The government, he charges, “has formulated no strategic plan for bringing and absorbing potential olim.”

Although Yisrael Ba’Aliyah is expected to get most of its support from immigrants, its agenda is not limited to the needs of olim.

Included in the party’s platform are calls for a liberalized, free-market economy, improved education, more affordable housing, and a greater emphasis on human rights and the environment.

On political issues, the platform calls for a referendum on the continuation of the peace process.

The party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, but supports Palestinian autonomy and territorial compromise on the Golan Heights.

While many immigrants will do doubt put their faith in Sharansky, many other will not.

“I won’t be voting for Sharansky because the concept of an ethnic party is like a party for pregnant women,” says Lev Elbert, who immigrated nine years ago.

“After nine months, you no longer need the party because you are no longer pregnant.”

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