(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When its weak showing at the polls transformed Israel B'Aliya from a political party to a faction within Likud, it was generally believed that immigrants from the former Soviet Union had acclimatized to the extent that they no longer needed a party of their own.
However, as the March 28 elections draw closer, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Russian vote will factor strongly in determining the outcome.
Moscow-born Deputy Minister for Immigration and Absorption Marina Solodkin, who came to Israel in 1991, entered the Knesset on an Israel B'Aliya ticket in 1996, and currently heads the Russian section in Kadima. The Foreign Press Association stated on Tuesday that there are 1,300,000 Russian voters.
There was a tendency to ignore those who had come in the 1970s she said, because there was a misconception that they had adopted an Israeli mentality. This was not the case, and they, like more recent immigrants continue to read Russian newspapers, watch the two Russian-language television channels and listen to the two Russian language radio frequencies.
"If you have no Russian vote, you cannot be a ruling party," she said, emphasizing that the Labor Party has no Russian mandate, is very socialist and rather out-moded. "We're tired of the old socialist mode," she said. "Labor is proposing things we knew in the former Soviet Union. It doesn't work. It didn't work there. It won't work here."
Labor leader Amir Peretz had asked her to join his party, but Solodkin refused on the grounds that both Labor and the Histadrut had failed the new immigrants.
Even though Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein chose to remain in Likud, Russians will not vote for Likud, asserted Solodkin, because they have no confidence in Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu who caused them great hardship when he was Finance Minister.
"Look at what Netanyahu did to us. He made it more difficult for us to survive. We were the main victims of his neo-conservative policies. He also hurt single parents."
Solodkin noted that a very large percentage of single mothers are Russian immigrants - Jewish women who were married to non-Jews whom they divorced because they wanted to live in Israel. When Netanyahu introduced his regimen of cutbacks, these women found it almost impossible to maintain their children and pay the rent. It became very difficult for them to live in dignity, said Solodkin.
In addition she said, Netanyahu had alienated immigrants from affluent countries by taxing overseas earnings. "He was the first to tax income from abroad." Kadima's main rival she acknowledged, is Israel Beiteinu led by Avigdor Lieberman, who immigrated from the Soviet Union before the fall of communism. From Kadima's perspective Israel Beiteinu is the only "strong competition on the Russian Street." The Russians see in Lieberman someone who is brave, strong and outspoken, Solodkin explained.
According to the latest surveys said Solodkin, 30 percent of Russians will vote for Kadima, 35 percent for Israel Beiteinu, 15 percent for Likud - and the rest are floating voters who are sitting on the fence and waiting for something to happen.
These are the people who are being courted by both Kadima and Israel Beiteinu. Solodkin forecast that those Russians who have become successful in Israel will vote Kadima.
Kadima had much more support from the Russian Street when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was at the helm, Solodkin acknowledged. At that time, he could count on 50 percent of the Russian vote. Sharon appealed to the Russians not only because of his strength and determination, said Solodkin, but because unlike other Israeli leaders, he spoke warmly of his Russian origins. According to Solodkin, the Russian street saw in Sharon a hybrid of Winston Churchill and Marshall Zukov.
Sharon realized the importance of Russian support she said, which is why he didn't chose one or two Russians, but five. Solodkin and triple-decker minister Tzipi Livni brought in the sixth. One of the most important of the six said Solodkin is Anastasia Michaeli because she represents so many different things to so many different people. She is a glamorous television star, a mother of six children and a convert to Judaism.
Although Russian immigrants are widely perceived as being right-wing, the Russians quietly supported disengagement from Gaza. Solodkin was not sure how Russian voters would react to a second disengagement,