Many Russian Voters Said 'Nyet' to Netanyahu

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the eight years he has spent in Israel, Russian-born Adolph Loshak has always voted for the right-of-center Likud Party, feeling comfortable with its tough positions on issues of peace and security.

Until Monday.

Standing in the dappled sunlight in this city's central park, Loshak said he agonized but finally decided to cast his ballot in Monday's Israeli elections for Ehud Barak, the leader of the center-left Labor Party, rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader.

"Netanyahu did not live up to our expectations," Loshak, 70, said as he watched pairs of fellow Russian immigrants play chess on long tables shaded by eucalyptus trees. "I have no great expectations for Barak either, but we need a change. It is impossible to go on like this."

A physician originally from Moscow, Loshak is part of what analysts had predicted would be a significant shift in Monday's elections, as the Likud lost a portion of its traditional support among Russian immigrant voters to Barak, helping to push Labor's standard-bearer to a decisive victory over Netanyahu.

The trend was evident in Rishon Le Zion, a middle-class Tel Aviv suburb where about one-quarter of the population is from the former Soviet Union. Voters interviewed outside polling stations and among the chess players Monday appeared almost equally divided between Netanyahu and Barak.

Labor Party campaign posters using the Cyrillic alphabet were plastered on booths and cars not far from polling stations, telling voters that "Israel Wants Change." And onetime Likud activists like Yaacov Drabkin were there too, urging his fellow Russian immigrants to switch their votes to Barak.

"For 10 years, I have been a member of Likud. But during all these years, I feel we have gained nothing," Drabkin said. "We feel now that Barak might be better. I want to give him a chance, and four years from now, if he's not so good, we'll vote him out too!"

The huge Russian vote is a special prize here, 680,000 voters from the former Soviet Union who make up what pollsters considered a critical swing vote in Monday's elections. In 1992, about 60% voted for Labor's Yitzhak Rabin, giving him a narrow win over Likud; in 1996, they shifted in similar numbers to Netanyahu, pushing him to a razor-thin victory.

And in recent weeks, pollsters had detected a shift back toward Labor, predicting that Netanyahu's support would drop from a high of about 70% among the "Russians," as all Soviet immigrants are called here, to about 55%.

Labor and Likud battled over the Russian vote, launching massive telephone canvassing operations, running campaign ads with Russian subtitles and courting immigrant leaders, particularly Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who heads the largest Russian party, Israel With Immigration.

Ephraim Sneh, who headed Labor's outreach to the Russians, said Monday that the campaign had emphasized Barak's storied military career--he is a former military chief of staff and Israel's most decorated soldier--in its Russian program. The immigrants tend to be hawkish on security and loath to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

"The Likud had tried to convince the Russians that Barak would deliver everything to the Arabs," Sneh said, hours before his candidate was declared the victor. "But we managed, by exposing the . . . daring operations he led, to turn a vote for Barak into something patriotic.."

But not to all Russians, some of whom said they felt uncomfortable with Labor's heritage of socialism, dating from the early days of the Israeli state.

"I was born in a Communist country, and I hate it," said Leonid Glixman, 40, a computer programmer. "I will never vote for the Labor Party. Netanyahu's way is the right way, not giving power to the Arabs and not giving up land."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°