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For Olmert, Snub of Russians Could Come Back to Haunt Him

May 9, 2006
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By failing to include a single Russian immigrant in his Cabinet, Ehud Olmert has made a major blunder that could shorten his term in office, undermine his Kadima party and hurt his plans for separation from the Palestinians, senior Israeli pundits say. It was the first time since 1995 that an Israeli prime minister has formed a government without a representative from the huge immigrant community of more than 1 million. It was a mistake Ariel Sharon would never have made, pundits say.

Outraged members of the Russian community speak of a sense of betrayal, and say Kadima may have lost the Russian vote forever. More immediately, Kadima’s Russian-speaking Knesset members are threatening to defy party discipline in key Knesset votes.

The upshot could be that Olmert will have difficulty mustering a parliamentary majority for his most important policy initiative: his plan to withdraw from large chunks of the West Bank. And he might be forced to go for early elections that he could lose.

During the coalition negotiations, it seemed certain that there would be at least one Russian immigrant minister. If Avigdor Lieberman’s mainly immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu party joined the government, there would be several; and if not, Marina Solodkin, who was sixth on Kadima’s Knesset slate, was sure to be included in the party’s ministerial lineup.

But in the end none of this materialized: The coalition talks with Lieberman collapsed, and Olmert failed to appoint Solodkin.

“There are no more portfolios,” Olmert reportedly told Solodkin the day appointments were made.

According to Solodkin, this was not just a personal slight. The entire Russian community, she says, feels betrayed, insulted and humiliated.

It’s as if Kadima “slammed the door” on “hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants looking for a political home,” she told an interviewer from the Ma’ariv newspaper.

Rina Greenberg, acting mayor of Carmiel and one of Kadima’s unsuccessful Russian immigrant candidates, was even blunter: She told Olmert’s people they were “committing political suicide.”

“In two years,” she declared, “there won’t be a single Russian-speaker left in the party.”

Since 1992, the Russian vote has been crucial in determining the outcome of Israeli elections. The Russians have invariably voted for the winner — Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, Ehud Barak in 1999 and Sharon in 2001 and 2003. They also have shown a readiness to defect when they feel let down or slighted: by Labor in 1996, Netanyahu in 1999 and Barak in 2001.

Barak, for example, promised a “civil revolution” to solve immigrant citizenship, marriage and burial problems, but quickly shelved it to form a coalition with the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. Ehud the first, a reference to Barak, took nearly two years to betray us, the Russians say; Ehud the second, meaning Olmert, only two days.

The Russian vote accounts for 18 to 20 seats in the 120-member Knesset. In the March 28 election, the Russians gave Olmert four or five seats: Without them, Solodkin maintains, he would not have beaten Labor’s Amir Peretz, who got hardly any Russian support.

To win Russian votes, Kadima included six immigrants on its slate and had Solodkin at No. 6, high enough to signal a guaranteed ministerial post.

“The feeling in the Russian street is that they used us and then discarded us,” Solodkin said.

Most of the Russian vote went to Lieberman, who got nine or 10 Russian seats. However, Lieberman’s inflammatory positions on Arab issues — he favors redrawing the borders of the state to exclude most Israeli Arabs, and recently hinted that Arab Knesset members who maintain ties with Israel’s enemies should be executed — meant that Olmert would have been harshly criticized had he included Lieberman in the coalition.

Still, some people in Olmert’s camp have been implying that Solodkin, who was in charge of getting out the Russian vote, could have done better.

At the start of the campaign, Kadima’s position, with Sharon at the helm, was much stronger. Polls showed Kadima winning eight Russian immigrant seats, ahead of Yisrael Beiteinu with five. Indeed, Sharon, who was extremely popular among immigrants, was planning a strategic partnership with them similar to the one Menachem Begin enjoyed as Likud leader from the late 1950s with Sephardi immigrants from North Africa.

The result of Russian immigrant pique could be the formation of new sectarian parties primarily representing immigrant interests. If they lose the Russian vote, Olmert and Kadima could be in real trouble next time around.

Lieberman could be a major beneficiary. His American spin doctor, Arthur Finkelstein, is working on a strategy designed to elevate Lieberman to the premiership, based on taking ultra-hawkish positions to capture the leadership of the Israeli right and winning over immigrants by cultivating the perception that the Israeli establishment doesn’t want them as equals.

Olmert’s rejection of Lieberman as a coalition partner and his failure to give Solodkin a ministerial position played into Lieberman’s hands, pundits say.

In the meantime, Russian anger at Kadima knows no bounds. Party activists are threatening to return their membership cards en masse; immigrants who won Knesset seats on the Kadima slate are talking about building a power base in the party that will be able to exert leverage on the leadership; and Solodkin says she wants to form a forum of Russian Knesset members from all parties.

More significantly, Solodkin and Michael Nudelman, another Russian immigrant legislator, reportedly are talking to Lieberman about possible future cooperation.

Should they decide to vote against Olmert’s withdrawal, and recruit other non-immigrant Knesset members in the coalition who have doubts about the plan, the consequences for Olmert could be disastrous. The loss of Kadima votes would make him dependent on Israeli Arab parties, and could trigger an erosion of public and Knesset support for the plan. That could force an election that Olmert might not win without immigrant votes.

Why did Olmert get himself into this vulnerable position — arrogance? Shortsightedness? Inexperience at the highest level? Confidence that success in dealing with immigrant problems will turn things around?

As far as the Russian immigrants are concerned, it doesn’t really matter. They’re determined to teach the prime minister a lesson he won’t forget.

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