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In Shift to the Right, Russians Seek a Netanyahu Comeback

July 19, 2000
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The support of Israel’s Russian community for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which helped propel Barak to victory in last year’s elections, has dwindled significantly in recent months.

And in looking for a possible successor, Israel’s largest immigrant community is apparently looking to someone believed ready to make a political comeback – – former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Two main factors appear to have led Russian Israelis away from Barak: his ultimately unsuccessful compromise to keep the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, Shas Party in his coalition; and the perception that he is willing to give away too much to the Palestinians in peace negotiations.

Many of the roughly 1 million Russian Israelis see Shas not only as a religious party but also as a lobbyist for Israel’s second largest immigrant group – – Moroccans.

Relations between Russian and Moroccan Israelis are tense. In addition to fighting for some of the same social service dollars, the Russians are generally secular, while the Moroccans are more traditional.

“The haredim hate the Russians. If you ask for the way, they tell you the wrong directions,” claims Marina, a 52-year-old woman from Moscow who now lives in Jerusalem.

When Russians gave an estimated 55 to 60 percent of their vote to Barak in direct elections for prime minister in 1999, they did so partially because of his promise that he would curtail what Russians — like many others in Israel’s secular community — see as the excessive power of the haredim.

But once in power, Barak, like other prime ministers before him, found that he had to negotiate with Shas, which, before it quit earlier this month, represented the second largest party in his coalition.

Larion Kaplan, 43, a schoolteacher from Ukraine now living in Jerusalem, said that she felt “fooled” by Barak when he made Shas his partner.

A recent poll appears to confirm the increasingly negative attitude toward Barak among immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The poll, conducted last week, found that only 23 percent of Israelis from the former Soviet Union have a favorable opinion of Barak, while 65 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him.

A similar poll conducted in May, commissioned by the same Philadelphia-based think tank, the Middle East Forum, found that 41 percent had a favorable view of Barak and 49 percent viewed him unfavorably.

The study of 500 immigrants had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

The poll also found that 65 percent said they did not trust Barak to make an agreement with the Palestinians that will protect Israel’s security; 18 percent said they did.

Indeed, this finding appears to confirm another factor that has diminished Russian support for Barak — an ideology, imported from Russia, that views surrendering any land as a blow to national honor.

This attitude is a “legacy of Russia’s imperial history. It is our unpreparedness to compromise, our unwillingness to surrender anything that has been conquered,” said Victor Breilovsky, a member of Knesset from the centrist Shinui Party.

As a result, many Russian Israelis perceive Barak’s policy of making territorial concessions in exchange for peace as dangerous and unjustified.

“We have had the experience of living under a totalitarian regime, which makes us suspicious and distrustful of negotiations and unguaranteed agreements with undemocratic states,” Natan Sharansky, who resigned from Barak’s government on the eve of the Camp David summit, told JTA.

Many Russians, particularly those from Central Asia and the Caucasus — who have had firsthand experience with what they view as the Arab mind-set — think that the Arab world should be dealt with only with force because force is all that world understands.

A group called Professors for a Strong Israel, which has many Russian members, recently launched a hunger strike to protest the peace negotiations.

“The main source of the problems now is the weakness and anguish in Israeli society,” said one of the strikers, Mikhail Golosovsky.

Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity with Russian Israelis stems from his willingness to use force in Chechnya.

During Russian presidential elections earlier this year, 60 to 70 percent of those who have dual citizenship and cast their ballots at the Russian Embassy polling stations in Israel voted for Putin.

The Russians’ generally hawkish position is supported by the Russian-language media, which, observers, say, leans to the right.

In a move seen by many as politically motivated, the Israeli tabloid Yediot Achronot fired the right-leaning Edouard Kuznetsov last year as editor in chief of the influential and commercially successful Russian daily Vesty, which it owns.

Kuznetsov promptly obtained funding money from Ukrainian Jewish tycoon Vadim Rabinovitch and started another Russian-language newspaper.

The Russian shift to the right is reflected in Israel’s Russian political parties.

Indeed, say observers, when Sharansky publicly criticized Barak and then left the government just before the summit, he did so with the knowledge that his Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, which has four seats in the current Knesset, is losing support to its chief rival, the Israel, Our Home Party.

That party is led by Netanyahu’s former right-hand man, Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned in 1997 amid allegations that he used strong-arm tactics against Netanyahu’s rivals in the Likud.

Democratic Choice, a leftist splinter from Sharansky’s party, would receive no seats in new elections for the Knesset, according to recent polls.

Netanyahu, who resigned as leader of the Likud Party last year after Barak defeated him — and who could be indicted on charges that include abusing the public trust — appears to have overwhelming support among Russian Israelis.

Polls show that Russians, who have helped limit each prime minister since 1992 to only one term in office, would give Netanyahu 80 percent of the vote if elections were held for prime minister.

And that could happen.

“Bibi has decided to come back,” an aide to Netanyahu told JTA. “He is only waiting for a good time.”

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