Who will win over the Russians?

In first weeks of campaign, major parties struggle to grab the Russian-speaking electorate, estimated to be worth 20 Knesset seats.

bibi barak livni trio 224  (photo credit: AP)
bibi barak livni trio 224
(photo credit: AP)
Kadima was unable to advance issues of concern to olim in the outgoing government because it was limited by a coalition that included Shas, Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni said, in an apologetic speech to the heads of Russian-speaking immigrant organizations at a Tel Aviv meeting earlier this week. The issues Kadima wants to advance "were fundamental ones," Livni said, "including civil marriage, [easier] conversions and legal questions important to olim. We must find solutions to these problems." While polling data is scarce, Kadima's popularity is believed to have dropped among the Russian-speaking population, which accounts for some 20 Knesset seats in total. "Kadima made a mistake when it didn't give [MK] Marina [Solodkin] her proper place [in the government]," Livni told the immigrant groups, referring to the failure to give Solodkin a cabinet portfolio despite her position at No. 6 on the Kadima list, ahead of both Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Though Kadima has reserved no less than four realistic positions - at 10, 20, 29 and 30 - on its list for the upcoming elections, well-known Russian-speakers are not competing for them. Indeed, of the party's three Russian-speaking MKs - Solodkin, Ze'ev Elkin and Michael Nudelman - Elkin has already left and Nudelman has yet to confirm he will remain. "I was also troubled about staying in Kadima," Solodkin told The Jerusalem Post. "Can we regain the trust of Russian voters?" According to Solodkin, the meeting "proved there are still many problems." "The heads of the organizations spoke of social and economic problems that make life difficult for the weaker immigrant population," she continued. "We're asking how we can help with rent, with the rising cost of basic goods. We spoke about liberal reforms, including civil marriage, which Kadima promised but did not fulfill. "I don't know if my public can turn the page," Solodkin said. "They have a long memory." Evgeny Sova, political correspondent for popular Russian-language Israeli television station Israel Plus, agreed that Kadima would have a tough time attracting the large Russian-speaking public. "In the last Knesset, too, Kadima gave representation on its list to olim," he said. "But that doesn't mean, and hasn't meant, that Kadima has acted to take care of these voters or deal with their concerns." Shortly after Livni's meeting with the immigrant groups, a spokesperson for Israel Beiteinu told the Post that "it's a shame Livni didn't see issues [that concern olim] as important on February 13, 2008 or on July 5, 2007, when she and her fellow Kadima faction members voted against the civil unions bill proposed by Israel Beiteinu." While Kadima struggles - halfheartedly, according to some - to attract the Russian vote, the Likud, too, is trying to entice Russian-speaking Israelis. And it is succeeding, says Ukrainian-born Likud MK Yuli Edelstein. Besides securing slots 21 and 30 for immigrants, the party "represents the only way to effect serious change. If you want to affect education, economics, the glass ceiling that many olim experience or reforms in conversion or civil unions, only a ruling party can implement real change," said Edelstein, who chairs the Knesset Caucus on Conversion. Yet while it is expected to do far better than Kadima among Russian-speakers, the Likud, too, "does not appeal directly to the concerns of these voters," said Sova. The party, he said, offers them representation on the party list but leaves the matter at that. The votes it does get, accounting for several Knesset seats, come from its perceived hawkishness rather than a consistent concern for the problems olim face, Sova added. "Many [Hebrew-speaking] politicians, including [Likud chairman] Binyamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni and [Labor chairman] Ehud Barak, don't understand the politics of the Russian-speaking population. They don't commission real sociological research to learn about it, and, as with Barak, they often believe these voters are already lost to them," Sova explained. Into this gap steps Israel Beiteinu, which expects to once again reap the dividends of the failure of the two highest-polling parties to speak in a focused way to the Russian-speaking public. Russian-speakers account for nine of the 11 seats currently held by Israel Beiteinu, a party originally founded to represent immigrants. Its appeal to this group is said to be threefold. First, it is politically hawkish, in keeping with a large consensus among the Russian-speaking public. Second, according to a Russian-born MK from another party, there is a genuine respect on the Russian-speaking street for party chief Avigdor Lieberman. Third, the party boasts a strong grassroots organization that has enabled it to claim four out of every five Russian-speakers elected to municipal office earlier this month. Indeed, so confident is Israel Beiteinu that it will keep its support among olim, that the party has been working to broaden its appeal to native Israelis, enlisting former Likud stalwart Uzi Landau and former ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon to its ranks. A party insider told the Post on Sunday that the party's leadership was looking to place sabras - native Israelis - in three of the top five slots in its Knesset list. "We expect and hope that the number of sabras who vote for Israel Beiteinu will grow to as much as half of our total votes," up from less than a quarter in the last election, said the insider. In these first weeks of the election campaign, with most parties yet to choose their Knesset lists, the direction of the Russian-speaking vote is as yet unclear. It could go center-right, say analysts, continuing the trend of recent years and increasing the chances for a Likud-led right-wing coalition with Israel Beiteinu. Alternatively it could tilt to the center, as happened in 1992 and 1999, when Russian-speaking voters favored Yitzhak Rabin and Barak, respectively. "We should be thinking of a broad coalition that can carry out the agenda of the olim," believes Solodkin. "I'd love to see a coalition of Kadima, Likud and Israel Beiteinu together. With those 60-70 seats, we could finally pass the liberal reforms we want to see."