'Russian-speakers less concerned with civil marriage than security, corruption' experts say

Shas-Israel Beiteinu spats over religious issues dismissed as "politics."

The issues of conversions and civil marriage are less important to Russian voters than security, foreign policy, education and fighting corruption, according to Dr. Ze'ev Hanin, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a frequent political commentator on Russian television and radio talk shows. "It's important, but it's not the enormous issue the politicians are making it out to be," Dr. Hanin told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "If you look at the exit polls from the 2006 elections, 55 percent of Russian voters did say that they preferred an easing of conversions and a resolution to the issue of civil unions. But only 10% of those same voters said it was their first priority, and a mere 2.4% said they voted because of state-religious issues," Hanin said. But the issue of civil unions, Hanin said, was much farther down on the Russian-speaking voters' lists, as multiple ways to deal with the Rabbinate's marriage restrictions already exist. "There are ways around it," he said. "People can go to Cyprus. it's not as if the state is giving them no possibility whatsoever. It's important to them on a symbolic level, but they can get around it." The conflicting worldview on these issues between Shas and Israel Beiteinu is widely seen as a barrier to the two parties sitting in the same government. But Hanin said that the wrangling between the parties over these matters is nothing more than "propaganda." "It should be taken seriously," he said. "But it's not a major obstacle as far as forming a government is concerned." Hanin told the Post that the vast majority of Lieberman's supporters preferred to see him join a Likud-led government as opposed to one with Kadima at the helm. "Actually, many of [Israel Beiteinu's] core supporters - the ones who go back to [the party's inception in] 1999, prefer Mr. Lieberman to be prime minister himself," Hanin said. "Those voters, who make up about six seats of the Russian bloc [out of an estimated 10 mandates from Russian-speaking voters altogether], are right wing and obviously prefer Lieberman to go with Bibi. "But the other group," Hanin explained, "is made up of those who previously identified themselves with Natan Sharansky's Israel Ba'aliya party. They, too, have a somewhat right-of center orientation, but social issues such as pensions and housing are their first priority. "They, too, would prefer that Lieberman go with Likud, but they're willing to look elsewhere, as long as Lieberman is in the government and in a position to deal with their social and material needs," Hanin continued. "The first group, which makes up over 60 percent of the Russian bloc, would be disappointed if Lieberman went with Kadima. The other group, about a quarter, wouldn't mind Livni, and the rest prefer someone else. So for Lieberman, it's quite clear that his Russian constituents prefer him to go with Likud," he said. Others backed Hanin's analysis, saying the Russian bloc as whole is more or less right of center, and that for them the issues of conversion and civil marriage are eclipsed by those of security and foreign policy. "I more or less agree," said Anna Shulik, a reporter for the country's Channel 9 Russian-language television station. "I don't deal with polls so much, but according to what I've heard being talked about, those [within the Russian-speaking community] who want to get married [and cannot do so here] have found a way to do it outside of Israel. "We should remember that we're not dealing with new immigrants anymore. Most of these people have been in Israel for a while, many consider themselves 'Russian-speaking Israelis,' and the social issues are less pressing than security and other national issues. Shulik also said that the importance of conversions has waned with time. "Take my husband for example," she said. "He comes from a mixed family, and he immigrated to Israel. He spent three years in Golani and fought in Lebanon. It's more important to him to be 'Israeli' than it is to be halachicly Jewish. It's just less of an issue." Asked why she thought there had been such a widely publicized battle between Lieberman and Shas over these issues, Shulik responded much as Hanin had. "It's just politics," she said. "Shas saw that Israel Beiteinu was gaining in the polls, they saw that Lieberman was taking votes away from them. So, about a week before the elections, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas member who can change these sorts of things with one word if he wants to, made his statement about Lieberman [that anyone who votes for Israel Beiteinu supports Satan], and it stopped Shas's votes from going to Lieberman. "Basically, what they wanted to do was remind their constituency that Lieberman is a Moldovan who doesn't keep kosher, even if he is tough on the Arabs," Shulik continued. "But now that they're in coalition talks, Shas will happily back away from their stance and sit with Lieberman in a government; remember, they did it before for a year and a half." Shulik's colleague at Channel 9, Ksenia Svetlova, similarly explained Lieberman's insistence on conversions and civil marriages as a central demand in coalition talks. "It's an issue of integrity," Svetlova said. "He's basically staying true to his election promises and saying, 'this is what I said and this is what I will do,' so he's gaining points. "But I think that he'll eventually compromise, and even then he won't lose support," Svetlova said. "If he compromises on these civil issues it won't be such a big deal, but if he were to change his stance on Israeli Arabs or negotiations with the Palestinians, then people would say that he's just another Israeli politician."