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Israel Votes 2003 Israeli Parties Working Hard to Get Russian Voters to Say ‘da’

Natan Sharansky pioneered the concept of a party catering to Russian immigrants, but when he appeared at a campaign event in Tel Aviv this week it was to court a new audience.

The number of Russian voters interested in an immigrant party has dwindled so much that Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah is turning to disgruntled English-speaking immigrants — but even then, only about two dozen turned out this week to hear Sharansky speak.

Pundits, analysts and politicians here say the “Israelification” of the 600,000-strong Russian electorate, one of the most sought-after voting blocs in Israel, has decimated the base of immigrant parties such as Yisrael Ba’Aliyah.

Russian voters, it seems, are more interested in broader strategic issues than the narrow concerns of an immigrant class.

Even Sharansky, Israel’s minister of housing and construction, agrees.

“The war with the Palestinians has pushed aside all other issues,” he told JTA in an interview after Monday night’s campaign event. “In many ways, it accelerated the process of assimilation among the Russian community.”

For example, Sharansky said, one out of every four soldiers in the Israel Defense Force today is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union: They live with Israelis, fight alongside them and are buried next to them.

“This is all great, but it erodes the difficult issues upon which this party was created,” such as gaining equal opportunities for immigrants in all spheres, he said.

Sharansky said he hopes to earn five or six Knesset seats in the Jan. 28 elections. But a poll in Monday’s Yediot Achronot newspaper gave his party only three seats, a drop of 50 percent from the last Knesset elections in 1999, when Yisrael Ba’Aliyah won 6 mandates.

Voters are looking “for the security of the larger parties,” Sharansky said — and the larger party to which Russians are flocking appears to be the Likud, the current leader in Israeli politics.

Michael Gurlovsky, an immigrant who hold the 27th place on the Likud’s Knesset slate, recently called the Likud “the largest Russian party in Israel.”

Likud’s fortunes among Russian voters have plummeted in recent months. Scandals involving a foreign loan to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and vote-buying allegations in November’s Likud primaries cut the party’s support among Russian voters from 33 percent to 17 percent, according to polls.

But Russian voters reportedly were alarmed by the decision of Supreme Court Judge Mishael Cheshin to pull the plug on a Jan. 9 press conference Sharon had called to respond to the accusations against him. Cheshin, who also heads Israel’s Central Elections Committee, ruled that Sharon’s tirade against the Labor Party and its chairman, Amram Mitzna, constituted “illegal election propaganda” that is barred from news programs in the month before the elections.

The Russian street howled.

“Silencing the prime minister had a huge impact on the Russian electorate. In the USSR, when they shut up a leader it meant only one thing: a coup,” said Tanya Weintraub, an adviser to Sharon on Russian affairs.

The Russian community therefore rallied around Sharon “to protect democracy,” she said, and the poll numbers returned to their previous level.

Yet analysts and pundits say the Russian voters’ desertion of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah is nothing compared to the drop in Russian support for the Labor Party and its left-wing allies.

While about 65 percent of Russians voted for Labor candidate Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections, the Labor-Meretz bloc is likely to take only 5 percent to 7 percent of the Russian vote this year, pollsters say.

Dahlia Scheindlin, an analyst who recently conducted an in-depth survey of the Russian electorate, says the swing is due to the Russians’ political cynicism and their mistrust of the Palestinians and nondemocratic leaders such as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The reasons for the disintegration of the Russian voting bloc are varied, but Russian voters appear to be moving not just toward the Likud but rightward in general.

While Russian voters already were considered right-of-center — they voted for Sharon over Barak by a margin of 80 percent to 20 percent in 2001 — they have not been uniformly ideological in the past. They have tended to favor strong, militaristic candidates, voting for Labor Party leaders Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and for Barak in 1999, when he ran on the basis of his military background and before he made his peace offers to the Palestinians.

This time around, pollster Ron Dermer cited surveys showing that only 7 percent of Russians have a “favorable” view of the dovish Mitzna, while more than half view him unfavorably.

Some question the extent to which it’s possible to speak of a bloc of Russian voters, as it was in the past.

The Russians “are well on their way to considering themselves as part and parcel of the fabric of Israeli society,” Scheindlin said. “They are an organic part of their community, with a strong desire to be Israeli but not to lose their identity as Russians.”

In addition to their language and certain other cultural affinities, Russians retain their political cynicism and their fear of anything that smacks of “left wing” or “socialism,” Scheindlin said.

The Likud hopes to win as many as eight Knesset seats from Russian voters by painting Labor and its allies as pink, Weintraub said.

Russian media outlets, such as the Vesti newspaper and Radio Reqa, will describe the left-wing Meretz Party as a haven for “maniacs, criminals, traitors and sellers of the country to the Arabs,” said Vitali Tchirkov, who is leading Meretz’s outreach to Russian voters.

“Labor fares no better,” he added.

Even Shinui, a centrist party running on a strongly anti-clerical platform, has had difficulty winning Russian voters. While Shinui’s stances on religion-state issues would seem likely to attract the Russian vote, the party has attracted only about 10 percent of Russian voters because they suspect that Shinui legislators who joined the party from Meretz remain ideologically left-wingers.

Israel Our Home, lead by veteran immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, has allied itself with the far-right parties National Union and Moledet and offers a “less corrupt” alternative for right-wing Russians leery of the Likud, party leaders say. In addition, Lieberman is seen as being truly right wing, while Sharansky’s willingness to sit in governments of both the right and the left makes him suspect to some Russian voters.

Michael Kleiner, who leads the small, right-wing Herut Party, also seems likely to win some 5 percent of the Russian vote, Dermer said.

Yet most parties think they can attract at least some Russian voters, who have proven notoriously flexible over the past decade.

“They are the least likely to have a preconceived identity or ideology, and are the easiest to convince,” Dermer said.

During the nightly hour of election ads on Israel’s main TV stations, most parties have run Russian subtitles along the bottom of the screen. Only two Jewish parties — Shas and Meretz — did not.

The fervently Orthodox Shas instead ran Hebrew subtitles to help viewers understand the often-mumbled words of spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. As for Meretz, a party activist said simply that “someone forgot to insert” the subtitles.

In contrast, while there are one-third more potential voters among Israeli Arabs than in the Russian community, only the Arab parties included Arabic subtitles in their ads.

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