Russian support rising for Israel Beiteinu, Kadima

"Russians don't vote for a party, they vote for a person. Today they like Lieberman, so they are voting for him."

Support among the critical bloc of Russian speaking voters is increasing for Israel Beiteinu and Kadima, but dropping for the Likud according to The Jerusalem Post /Smith Institute poll results released Thursday. Some 44 percent of the Russian speaking voters support Israel Beiteinu and 27% favor Kadima compared to 12% for Likud, according to the Smith poll. Two weeks ago, the Smith Institute found that 35% of the Russian speaking voters liked Israel Beiteinu and 20% supported Kadima with 17% planning to vote for the Likud. Support among Russian speakers for Labor has remained at 4%, exactly where it was two weeks ago, according to the poll. The number of undecided voters among the Russian speaking community has dropped from 14 to 10%, according to the poll. Kadima and Likud easily acknowledge that Israel Beiteinu, which heavily identifies itself with the Russian immigrant community, is leading in polls of the community. Avigdor Lieberman, its party leader, himself an immigrant from Muldova, speaks Russian in many of his campaign appearances. An immigrant from the Ukraine, IIgor Gurevich, who heads the Israel Beiteinu campaign in the city of Nesher outside of Haifa, said he trusted Lieberman more than the other politicians because he is Russian. But a group of younger Russian immigrants, who head Lieberman's campaign at the University of Haifa said it's the man and his policies that they are voting for, irrespective of the fact that they share a similar language and background. "Lieberman is from Muldova and I'm from the Ukraine. It's slightly different," said Yonathan Azov, 24. "Natan Sharansky (an immigrant from the former Soviet Union) is in the Likud and I'm not supporting him at all," he added. Lieberman, he said, is a strong, knowledgeable, Zionist leader who would be good for the economy and support immigrant needs as well as the settlements in Judea and Samaria, he said. Azov said he learned the hard way not to trust politicians in the Likud, having supported Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the last election because he said, "the fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv." He similarly distrusts Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu. "He changes his mind all the time. First he was for disengagement and then he was against it," said Azov. Ksenia Kravitz, 23, said she particularly liked Lieberman's call for every citizen to sign a loyalty pledge to the Zionist state. "In my eyes he's the most appropriate politician to be prime minister. I'm not interested in Bibi or [Labor Chairman Amir] Peretz," she said. Kravitz came to Israel from the Ukraine as part of a youth immigration program in 2000. At the time of the 2001 elections she was living in the dormitory of a government sponsored absorption program and didn't know much about Israeli politics. "They brought us to the polls and told us to vote for Sharon, so I did." In the second election she was busy working and couldn't be bothered. "I wasn't so interested. I didn't care so much," she said. As a politics student at Haifa University she said she has come to understand that her vote counts. "Those who vote have influence," she said. Michael Benzin, 20, who immigrated from Russia in 1997, said he particularly liked the portion of Lieberman's platform that called for reducing the number of Israeli Arabs in Israel. "They (Israeli Arabs) do not like Israel. I do not think they should live here in our country," he said. As a secular Jew, he said, he also liked the fact that Israel Beiteinu represented the secular right. Sitting in the small windowless Kadima office in Haifa, where volunteers work to target voters from the former Soviet Union, Lazer Kaplun who heads the campaign acknowledged that he had his work cut out for him. Kaplun admitted it was an uphill battle because Lieberman is enormously popular among the voters from the former Soviet Union countries. "They refer to the party as Lieberman not Israel Beiteinu," he said. "Russians don't vote for a party, they vote for a person. Today they like Lieberman, so they are voting for him. Tomorrow, they will like someone else and they will vote for him," said Kaplun. He's countering that by trying to show them that Kadima also has politicians from the former Soviet Union, including Marina Solodkin who is sixth on the Kadima list. If the voters see that their leaders are supporting Kadima, they will follow suit, he said. Since arriving from the Ukraine in 1990, Kaplun has voted for everything but a large party. The 38 year-old architect has supported the communist party, Israel B'aliya and the casino party. But this March, he's breaking with his unusual voting pattern and is placing all his efforts into making sure that Kadima is the party of choice for the Russian immigrants living in Haifa, who make up some 25 percent of the northern coastal city. On the campaign trail Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert doesn't speak Russian, although he knows the language. But in campaign headquarters for Kadima's Russian speakers all the conversations and campaign literature are in Russian. "Here it's all in Russian," said Kaplun. Hanging behind him, on the yellow wall is a picture of Olmert, with Kadima spelled in Russian. A box of Russian papers sits on the floor, next to a pile of Russian campaign posters. A few Russian political bumper stickers are scattered on the small table in the room. When speaking with potential voters, Kaplun tells them that Kadima is a strong party that if elected to the government can make progress on issues that are important. He tells the Russian voters that if they come out in large numbers for Kadima, the party will reward them in kind when it enters office after the March 28th election. Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, who is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, acknowledged that his party was coming in third in the polls, but said it was working hard to close the gap. But he disputed the results of the Smith poll showing that support for the Likud was dropping among Russian voters. The party's internal polls and those in other papers have support for the Likud among Russian voters at 18 percent, said Edelstein, who is 15th on the Knesset list. "My feeling from the field is very positive. We have 1,000 activists in 60 places across the country," he said.