Dolling up for the elections

With Russian-born Israelis expected to determine at least 15 mandates in the next Knesset, parties across the spectrum are competing for their votes

russianbabushka dolls 88 (photo credit: )
russianbabushka dolls 88
(photo credit: )
Labor campaign adviser David Kimche admitted recently that there was little his party could do to attract the Russian vote. There's the distrust of any program smacking of socialism and the lack of strong Russian immigrants base in the party. And then there's party chairman Amir Peretz. "He looks like Joseph Stalin," Kimche conceded. In short, he concluded, "It's going to be a very hard sell." But there are other parties that consider it to be less of a challenge, namely, Kadima, Likud and Israel Beitenu. Polls give them the lionshare of the Russian vote. With upwards of 15 mandates expected to be determined by Russian-born citizens - a crucial swing vote - the competition is fierce. Kadima had the early lead, with polls giving the new party a high of 33 percent of backing by the Russian voting population soon after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced its inception. But it has been hemorrhaging those votes ever since. Only 16-17% of Russians will vote for Kadima now, according to a poll conducted last week by Dr. Eliezer Feldman, director of the Russian speakers' department of the polling company, Mutagim Institute. The percentage is among all eligible Russian voters - 700,000 people, among them 60,000 first-timers and 300,000 who are likely to stay home on election day. Eli Kazhdan, who was born in Moscow and ran on the Yisrael B'Aliya list in the last elections, explained that most Russians supported Kadima because of Sharon. While other Israelis back the party because they want a centrist option, Russians "are more right-wing than your average Israeli," Kazhdan said. "They were impressed by the fact that [Sharon] was a strong leader." Kadima's loss has largely been the Likud, which has seen its support among Russians more than double since Kadima broke onto the scene. Some 11% of Russians are now planning to vote for Binyamin Netanyahu's party, Feldman's poll found. Feldman found that socioeconomic issues rank second on the list of Russian voters' concerns - as compared to eighth in 2003 - and Netanyahu can be a strong pull on this front. Russians give the former finance minister a great deal of credit for improving the Israeli economy at a dire moment. At the same time, he added, they disapprove of certain Netanyahu policies that hurt poor families. Beyond economics, and other platform planks, the Likud is banking on having two well-known Russian candidates in realistic spots on the party list: Natan Sharansky at number 10 and Yuli Edelstein at number 15. A former Israeli official active in immigrant issues, however, doubted whether Sharansky and Edelstein - who won only two mandates as an independent party in 2003 - would really corral the Russian street. "Sharansky has an attraction more for non-Russians than for Russians," he said. Kazhdan, however, stressed the significance of Sharansky and Edelstein winning realistic seats in a "fair" competition. "They were not parachuted in as token immigrants for reserved immigrants' seats," he said. Former Sharansky advisor Aryeh Green reacted more strongly to the disparagement of the Likud's top two Russian candidates. "It's rubbish. It's very clear that the Russian community looks to Sharansky and Edelstein as powerful leaders that help their interests," he said. But he added that Russians have already broken out of much of the immigrant mold, meaning they would back Likud for its whole package just as other Israelis would. The former Israeli official also questioned the Russian support Kadima's top FSU candidate - Marina Solodkin - would draw. "She's known, but she's certainly not a superstar," he said. Kadima spokeswoman Maya Jacobs pointed out that the party also will put Michael Nudelman "in a realistic position" on its list, as well as at least three more CIS candidates. Meir Sheetrit recently floated a proposal akin to civil marriage, and Jacobs also said the party would attract FSU immigrants will support Kadima as "a large, leading, practical and sane party that will influence Israel's policy for the coming years, or supporting an extreme candidate who is irrelevant and is sure to be a member of the opposition - Avigdor Lieberman." Extreme or not, Lieberman, however, is sure to be relevant to Russian voters. Polls show his party currently far ahead of the others. Feldman's survey showed him garnering 22-23% of Russian popular support (or 44-46% of the support of those who will vote). Israel Beitenu spokesman Alexay Lorentson was even more optimistic: "We expect to get half of the Russian voters in Israel - at least." He attributed the popularity to the party's being the only one to "represent" Russians - by supporting programs for new immigrants, efforts to end discrimination, funding for cultural projects - and because of the party's right-wing approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict. GENERALLY, THOUGH, Russians have been turning their backs on sectarian parties. Yisrael B'Aliya has been subsumed by the Likud. Shinui might not pass the threshold to enter the Knesset. One political observer said that the Russians have been disappointed like everyone else with unfulfilled promises while the party was in the government and distress over the infighting that's broken out since internal elections. "They don't want to be the last ones to leave the party," he said. Yet MK Yigal Yasinov, himself from the former FSU, said he is convinced Shinui will get at least one mandate from Russians, and potentially many more now that chairman Yosef "Tommy" Lapid and his second-in-command Avraham Poraz have left. "We are renewed," he said. He also said he thinks that Shinui voters who shifted allegiance to Kadima will return, now that Sharon is out of the picture. He noted, though, that many of those voters will just refrain from casting ballots. Last time, a smaller percentage of Russians voted than Israelis generally, and that trend is likely to continue this March, according to Feldman. He assessed: "[Many] Russians aren't so connected to the political system. They think that they can't really affect the government." Take Peter Noudvesky, who heads Jerusalem's Russian supermarket workers' union. He echoed Feldman's words: "We don't feel connected at all to politics. All of them [politicians] seem elite and they only talk to us during elections." Aside from his desire to see Yuri Shtern of Israel Beitenu become prime minister, Noudvesky said he has few other political inclinations. He indicated that Kadima would win regardless, and Likud "feels like a bunch of rich Israelis who have no reason to care about me." So he, like many of his friends, might just sit this round out. He noted, though, that he's considering giving Labor a second look, since some in his community have rated its social platform highly. Labor has been making efforts to capitalize on such attitudes. Leon Litinsky, number 20 on the Labor list (the immigrant slot), made an impassioned plea earlier this week: "I am turning to those of us who came her in the 1990s - to those Russians who came to Israel to make better lives for their families. Don't find yourselves below the poverty line. The Labor Party, every solution it provides, it provides for the Russian community. And the Labor Party is the only party with true solutions." But Noudvesky hasn't been quite convinced. Indicating that Kimche's assessment about the Russian vote is correct, Noudvesky said it would be hard to cast a vote for Labor. "Peretz reminds me too much of Stalin. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth." Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.