Red Star Rising
Israel's Russian voters are swinging to the mainstream.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
atan Sharansky pioneered the concept of
an Israeli political party catering to
Russian immigrants, but when he
appeared at a campaign event in Tel Aviv
this week it was to court a new audience.
The number of Russian voters interested in an
immigrant party has dwindled so much that
Sharansky's Yisrael Ba'Aliyah is turning to disgrun-
tled English-speaking immigrants — but even then,
only about two dozen turned out this week to hear
Pundits, analysts and politicians say the
"Israelification" of the 600,000-
strona b Russian electorate, one of
the most sought-after voting blocs
in Israel, has decimated the base of
immigrant parties such as Yisrael
Ba'Aliyah. Russian voters, it seems,
are more interested in broader
strategic issues than the narrow
concerns of an immigrant class.
Even Sharansky, Israel's minister Natan
of housing and construction,
"The war with the Palestinians
has pushed aside all other issues," he said. "In many
ways, it accelerated the process of assimilation
among the Russian community."
For example, Sharansky said, one out of every four
soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces today is an
immigrant from the former Soviet Union: They live
with Israelis, fight alongside them and are buried
next to them.
"This is all great, but it erodes the difficult issues
upon which this party was created," such as gaining
equal opportunities for immigrants in all spheres, he
Sharansky hopes to earn five or six Knesset seats in
the Jan. 28 elections. But a poll in the Yediot
Achronot newspaper gave his party only three seats, a
drop of 50 percent from the last Knesset elections in
Voters are looking "for the security of the larger
parties," Sharansky said, and the larger party to
which Russians are flocking appears to be the Likud,
the current leader in Israeli politics.
Michael Gurlovsky, an immigrant who holds the
27th place on Likud's Knesset slate, recently called
the Likud "the largest Russian party in Israel." .
Likud's fortunes among*Russian voters plummeted
in recent months. Scandals involving a foreign loan
to. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and vote-buying
allegations in November's Likud primaries cut the
party's support among Russian voters from 33 per-
cent to 17 percent, according to polls.
But Russian voters reportedly were alarmed by the
decision of.Israel Supreme Court Judge Mishael
Cheshin to pull the•plug on a Jan. 9 press confer-
ence Sharon called to respond to the accusations
against him. Cheshin, who also heads Israel's Central
Elections Committee, ruled that Sharon's tirade
against the Labor Party and its chairman, Amram
Mitzna, constituted "illegal election propaganda"
that is barred from news programs in the month
before the elections.
The Russian man on the street howled.
"Silencing the prime minister had a huge impact
on the Russian electorate. In the USSR, when they
shut up a leader it meant only one thing: a coup,"
said Tanya Weintraub, an adviser to Sharon on
The Russian community rallied around Sharon "to
protect democracy," she said, and the poll numbers
returned to their previous level.
Yet analysts and pundits say the Russian voters'
desertion of Yisrael Ba'Aliyah is nothing.compared
to the drop in Russian support for the Labor Party
and its left-wing allies.
While about 65 percent of Russians voted for
Labor candidate Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections,
the Labor-Meretz bloc is likely to take only 5-7 per-
cent of the Russian vote this year, pollsters say.
• Dahlia Scheindlin, an analyst who recently con-
ducted an in-depth survey of the Russian electorate,
says the swing is due to the Russians' political cyni-
cism and their mistrust of the Palestinians.
The reasons for the disintegration of the Russian
voting bloc are varied, but Russian voters appear to
be moving not just toward the Likud but rightward
While Russian voters already were considered
right-of-center — they voted for Sharon over Barak
by a margin of 80-20 in 200f
they have not been
uniformly ideological in the past. They have tended
to favor strong, militaristic candidates, voting for
Labor Party leaders Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and for
Barak in 1999, when he ran on the basis of his mili-
tary backgrourid and before he made his peace offers
to the Palestinians.
This time around, pollster Ron Dermer cites sur-
veys showing that only 7 percent of Russians have a
"favorable" view of Labor's dovish Mitzna, while
more than half view him unfavorably.
Some question the extent to which it's possible to
speak of a bloc of Russian voters, as it was in the
past. The Russians "are well on their way to consid-
ering themselves as part and parcel of the fabric of
Israeli society," Scheindlin said. "They are an
organic part of their community, with a strong
desire to. be Israeli, but not to lose their identity as
In addition to their language and certain other
cultural affinities, Russians retain their political
cynicism and their fear of anything that smacks of
"left wing" or "socialism," Scheindlin said.
The Likud hopes to win as many as eight
Knesset seats from Russian voters by painting
Labor and its allies as pink, Weintraub said.
Russian media outlets, such as the Vesti newspaper
and Radio Reqa, will describe the left-wing Meretz
Party as a haven for "maniacs, criminals, traitors and
sellers of the country to the Arabs," said Vitali
Tchirkov, who is leading Meretz's outreach to
Russian voters. "Labor fares no better," he added.
Even Shinui, a centrist party running on a
strongly anti-clerical platform, has had difficulty
winning Russian voters. While Shinui's stances on
religion-state issues would seem likely to attract the
Russian vote, the party has support of only about
10 percent because Russian voters suspect that
Shinui legislators who joined the party from
Meretz remain ideologically left-wingers.
Israel Our Home, led by veteran immigrant
Avigdor Lieberman, has allied itself with the far-
right National Union and Moledet parties and .
offers a "less corrupt" alternative for right-wing
Russians leery of the Likud, party leaders say. In
addition, Lieberman is seen as being truly right
wing, while Sharansky's willingness to sit in gov-
ernments of both the right and
the left makes him suspect to
some Russian voters.
Michael. Kleiner, who leads the
small, right-wing Herut Party,
also seems likely to win 5 percent
of the Russian vote, Dermer said.
Yet most parties think they
can attract at least some Russian
voters, who have proven notori-
ously flexible over the past
decade. "They are the least likely
to have a preconceived identity
or ideology, and are the easiest to convince,"
During the nightly hour of election ads on Israel's
main TV stations, most parties have run Russian
subtitles along the bottom of the screen. Only two
Jewish parties — Shas and Meretz — did not.
The Orthodox Shas instead ran Hebrew subtitles
to help viewers understand the often-mumbled
words of spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. As
for Meretz, a party activist said that "someone for-
got to insert" the subtitles.
In contrast, while there are one-third more
potential voters among Israeli Arabs than in the
Russian community, only the Arab parties included
Arabic subtitles in their ads. ❑