The Road to Israel’s Elections: Campaign Has a Russian Accent As Immigrants Flex Their Muscle
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The Road to Israel’s Elections: Campaign Has a Russian Accent As Immigrants Flex Their Muscle

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It took only five minutes and seven moves for Natan Sharansky, head of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah immigrant rights party, to checkmate Labor Party leader Ehud Barak when the two faced off at Israel’s national chess championships this week.

But as the elections draw near, Barak is fighting much harder to win the votes of Sharansky’s supporters.

At the same time, Sharansky is carefully calculating his next moves on the Israeli political chessboard, knowing that the nation’s approximately 500,000 Russian immigrant voters may be kingmakers in the upcoming elections.

“The key community in this election is the Russians,” said Hanoch Smith, founder of Smith Research Center, an Israeli polling institute. “It was the Russians who determined the results of the last two elections, and they will probably determine the results of this one.”

Although they played a decisive role in the past, this year’s increased awareness of their political power is having a big impact on the campaign.

For the first time, almost every party includes Russian subtitles in its election advertisements. Some are even airing Russian-language commercials. In addition, Russian-speaking candidates from nonimmigrant parties are being pushed under the spotlight.

As the campaign winds to a close, Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are stepping up appearances in Russian immigrant communities.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah created a commotion over its ads, which featured personal stories of immigrants who said they had been harassed by the Shas-controlled Interior Ministry in their quests for citizenship.

The ads were punctuated with the slogan: “Shas Control? Nyet! Nash Control!” (Shas Control? No! Our Control!) They called for Yisrael Ba’Aliyah to take over the powerful ministry in the next government.

Shas countered that Yisrael Ba’Aliyah wants control over the ministry so that “shops that sell pork won’t be closed” and so “call girls” and others will have an easier time entering Israel illegally.

Netanyahu, fearing potential electoral damage resulting from a miniwar between Shas and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah — both of whom are in his governing coalition – – orchestrated a highly publicized peacemaking session.

Sharansky himself has been basking under the spotlight. The short, balding, former Soviet dissident jokes that the attention makes him feels like a tall, handsome man with curly hair.

“I think all the attention shows how right we were [to create a party],” Yuli Edelstein, a member of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah who serves as minister of absorption, said in a telephone interview with JTA. “Our numbers were very impressive in 1992 and 1996, but there was not this kind of dance around the immigrants.

“Since the immigrants got political representation and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah was created, the rules of the game changed,” he said. “They are no longer a needy population that candidates can come and throw candies at. The immigrants have real needs and have to be addressed as real people.”

While other ethnic parties have contributed to ethnic tensions, Edelstein said, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah has promoted the integration of immigrants. “The party is a way to contribute to Israeli society,” he said. “Once we bring out the potential of new immigrants, they make direct contributions in all fields.”

Recent opinion polls suggest Yisrael Ba’Aliyah will maintain its seven seats in the 120-seat Knesset. In addition, Israel, Our Home, an immigrant-based party headed by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Avigdor Lieberman, may get three seats.

Israel, Our Home exploded onto the political scene when Lieberman unleashed a scathing criticism of the Israeli judiciary and police. His tough anti- establishment talk has sparked a police investigation into alleged incitement. The party is widely seen as a satellite set up by Netanyahu to capture Russian votes.

An unfazed Yisrael Ba’Aliyah decided not to battle Lieberman, and Edelstein insists his party will remain neutral and not endorse a prime ministerial candidate. This allows the party to keep all its coalition options open after elections.

Yet remaining neutral and not helping Netanyahu, who is trailing in the polls by as much as 12 percent, is not easy for Sharansky. Despite political tension between the two during the past three years, Netanyahu actively worked for Sharansky’s release when he languished in a Soviet prison during the 1970s and 1980s.

Neutral or not, nobody is ignoring the Russian voters. Pollster Smith’s research shows that in 1992, 60 percent of the Russian immigrants — then 10 percent of the electorate — voted for Labor and secured its victory. In 1996, 60 percent voted for Netanyahu, helping him gain power.

However, according to an internal Likud poll recently cited in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Russian immigrant support for Netanyahu has fallen from 63 percent in 1996 to 55.2 percent during the past few weeks. Barak is up to 36 percent, with 20 percent undecided. The immigrants make up about 14 percent of the electorate today.

“If Netanyahu does not get 60 percent of the Russian vote, he’s in trouble,” said Smith, warning that Israeli opinion polls are often unreliable. “A shift in the Russian vote could be the decisive factor.”

The candidates are keenly aware that there is fertile ground for such a shift. Smith explains that, unlike most Israelis who consistently vote for the same party in a “tribal” fashion, Russian immigrants have no loyalty toward any party or candidate.

Edelstein says Barak has “greatly improved” his situation among immigrant voters with a sophisticated campaign tailored to them.

“I will vote for Yitzhak Mordechai, but all my friends are voting Barak,” said Anastasia, a 19-year-old Russian immigrant who prefers not to give her full name. “They think Bibi is giving too much money to the haredim,” or fervently Orthodox, “and Barak will give more money for mortgages and university.”

Barak’s advances in the immigrant community are particularly significant, said a Yisrael Ba’Aliyah official, speaking on condition of anonymity, because the Russian-language press in Israel is overtly right wing regarding the peace process.

“A month ago, young Russians thought that Barak was a boring, left-wing socialist party leader who does not look good on TV and mumbles a lot,” said the official. “Today they see him as a high-ranking Israeli general who knows how to play the piano. The Russian immigrants like strong, cultured people.”

Nobody, however, is celebrating victory yet. The Labor Party knows Netanyahu is still fighting hard for every Russian vote. To hammer that point home, a day after the Barak-Sharansky match, Netanyahu faced off in a chess match of his own with Sharansky.

The two played to a stalemate.

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