ASHDOD, Israel, Jan. 29 (JTA) – Several hundred Russian immigrants have packed into a gaudy seaside wedding hall in the port city of Ashdod to hear Ariel Sharon make his pitch for the premiership.
They wait patiently in their seats for the Likud’s prime ministerial candidate, the subdued mood contrasting with the urgency of Israel’s imminent elections.
Attempts by Likud Knesset member Naomi Blumenthal to rouse the crowd – in slow, often patronizing Hebrew – meet with muted applause. She and others try unsuccessfully to pump up the atmosphere by repeatedly reminding the audience that Sharon will be a strong leader.
But when Sharon takes the podium, his charisma slowly wins over even this quiet audience.
He addresses Russian army veterans soldier to soldier, promises to revive Israel’s national pride and deterrence and pledges to solve the housing crisis of elderly immigrants. There is little strongman rhetoric, beyond his campaign promises not to negotiate with the Palestinians under fire.
What is happening here – and in similar gatherings across the country – could prove pivotal as Sharon faces incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the Feb. 6 elections.
In the last three elections, voters among the 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union – about one-sixth of Israel’s population – have played a decisive role in the outcome of the elections.
Unlike most Israelis who maintain a strong loyalty to a particular party or camp, the Russians are known to be protest voters, backing a new horse each time.
In 1992, they supported Yitzhak Rabin of Labor; in 1996, they shifted to the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
Now, after helping Barak defeat Netanyahu in 1999, they have largely shifted their allegiance to Sharon.
“The distance is enormous and the Russians are part of the game,” Hanoch Smith, an Israeli pollster, said, referring to Sharon’s lead in the polls.
Several polls show Sharon with twice as much support as Barak among Russian immigrants.
Indeed, Sharon has won the endorsement of the two major immigrant parties, including the one led by Natan Sharansky.
Barak, however, has not written off the Russian vote. He, too, traveled to Ashdod this week to campaign in the Russian community.
At the Ashdod rally, Sharon refrains from speaking Russian as he has at earlier rallies – some immigrants have said his Russian comes off as childish. But he impresses the crowd and draws hearty laughs at least half a dozen times by correcting his translator.
Finally, he addresses one of the audience’s main concerns, promising not to be manipulated by fervently Orthodox parties such as Shas.
“Do not believe the rumors,” Sharon urges. “I have seen what they are publishing, that I will be taken captive by the haredim. Throughout the years, I always took others captive. I myself was never taken captive and I am nobody’s hostage. Nobody’s.”
Despite his double-digit lead over Barak, Sharon is taking nothing for granted.
Blumenthal, who is heading immigrant outreach for the Sharon campaign, said the party has focused heavily on teaching immigrants who Sharon is.
“They are definitely impressed by Arik as a model leader,” she said, using his nickname.
“The immigrants take national pride very seriously. They are asking, ‘What has happened to our national pride? Why are we willing to give up all of the elements that connect us to this land?’ The immigrants cannot stand the defeatism of Barak and his willingness to run after Arafat.”
But the crisis with the Palestinians and the peace process is not the only thing on immigrants’ minds.
Largely secular, they generally support a separation of religion and state and are closely watching to see which candidate is most likely to court the powerful Shas after the elections.
Part of the immigrants’ frustration with Barak is the alliance he made with Shas and his failure to implement the civil reforms he promised in his 1999 campaign.
Yet they are equally concerned that Sharon – who is known for his close ties to the fervently Orthodox community – may be no different.
“I don’t trust either of them, and I want to know what the difference is between Sharon and Barak, specifically on Shas,” said Tatiana Brodetsky, 42, a high-school teacher who came to the Ashdod rally and was quickly turned off by the tough talk preceding Sharon’s arrival.
Yet Sharon certainly seems to be investing much more effort in the Russian community than is Barak, Brodetsky said.
Barak ads in the Russian press are few, she said, while Sharon has blanketed the Russian press with advertisements, and Sharon operatives are working immigrant neighborhoods far more thoroughly than is Barak’s team.
Roman Bronfman, a former member of Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah immigrant party who now supports Barak, admits that Barak is at a disadvantage on several fronts.
“Among the immigrants there is an advantage for nationalist leaders,” said Bronfman, who now heads the splinter Democratic Choice party.
“But they are also very disappointed on the economic front and the issues of religion and state.”
At the same time, Bronfman is frustrated that some of the more controversial elements of Sharon’s past are not being discussed in the Russian press.
“The immigrants do not know much about Sharon’s record,” said Bronfman, referring to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that Sharon initiated as defense minister and his indirect responsibility for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel’s Lebanese Christian militia allies.
“There simply is no public debate.”
Furthermore, Bronfman added, recent controversial remarks by 1970s immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing immigrant party, Israel, Our Home, who advocated bombing targets in the Muslim and Arab world if regional fighting persists, were not covered in leading Russian newspapers.
At the Ashdod rally, Sharon was flanked by Lieberman and Sharansky, who support his candidacy.
At the rally, some participants admit that they know nothing about Sharon’s record in Lebanon. Even those who do – like Oleg Kolchinsky, a 44-year-old worker at a high-tech plant who immigrated from Ukraine less than two years ago – say it may not affect their support for Sharon.
“I had some sympathy for Barak, but after the events of October and November something snapped,” he says, referring to the violent conflict with the Palestinians.
“Sharon is a very strong man, and our enemies will listen to him. They will know that if Sharon is the leader, they cannot ignore us.”