Israeli Politicians Court the ‘Russian’ Vote

Times Staff Writer

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began his campaign speech with an unusual apology: He would speak in Hebrew.

Seated before Olmert in a sweltering community hall were more than 500 Russian-speaking immigrants. Many spoke only limited Hebrew, but Olmert said his command of Russian was probably worse.

Despite the language barrier, Olmert and other leading members of his Kadima party were eager to woo this crowd on a recent evening because it represented a large and important voting bloc in Israel: immigrants from the former Soviet Union.


Those voters, who have come from various regions since the late 1980s but often are referred to here simply as “the Russians,” are being keenly courted by the main parties as Israel heads toward national elections March 28.

In a race that so far has lacked suspense because of Kadima’s lead in the polls, the so-called Russian bloc -- representing 750,000 voters, about 15% of the electorate -- is seen as a potentially pivotal wild card.

Part of the reason is the disappearance of Ariel Sharon from the political stage. He enjoyed a big following among emigres from the former Soviet Union, who are generally hawkish on security matters and liked his tough-nosed approach toward the Palestinians. When Sharon left the conservative Likud Party in November to form the centrist Kadima movement, a hefty chunk of the Russian vote was expected to follow.

But with Sharon comatose in a Jerusalem hospital since a stroke in January, many of his Russian admirers seem reluctant to fall in behind Olmert, who took over as prime minister and leader of Kadima. According to polls, some have rejoined Likud or migrated to the fringe Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing figure who emigrated from the Soviet Union during a previous wave in the late 1970s and has a solid core of Russian adherents.

Many other Russians -- perhaps a third, some analysts say -- drifted into the category of undecided voters, forming a tantalizing prize for campaigners with less than a month to go before elections. Kadima officials concede that their party trails slightly behind Yisrael Beiteinu among Russian voters. Likud, meanwhile, hopes to cut into Kadima’s overall lead of about 2 to 1 in polls by prying away more Russian voters.

“The Russians, and many Israelis, saw Ariel Sharon as a strong, decisive leader, and that’s something that’s appealing. With him no longer on the political scene, these voters are back on the playing field,” said Ari Harow, a Likud spokesman. “There’s a tremendous effort to recruit this voter.”

The main parties are translating their platforms from Hebrew into Russian, stuffing campaign fliers into Russianlanguage newspapers and inviting Russian political figures and celebrities to campaign rallies in places where immigrants from the former Soviet Union are clustered. These are hardly novel campaign tactics in a nation that has absorbed about 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the last 16 years, but the current push is more sophisticated than those of the past and reflects the raised stakes since Sharon’s illness.

Analysts say Likud, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, probably has the most to gain if Kadima proves unable to hold on to its Russian voters, who have favored the eventual winner in the last five Israeli elections.

“Since 1992, nobody has won the election without the Russian vote,” said Yitzhak Brudny, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “You can put it the other way around: Since 1992, the Russians went with the winner.”

In talking to Russian audiences, candidates are playing up security issues.

At the rally in Nazareth Illit, in the northern Galilee region, Olmert mentioned Sharon frequently while vowing to take strong action against violence by Palestinians.

“There is no compromise on that, and there will not be a compromise,” he said, drawing the biggest applause of the evening.

Hawkish political talk is de rigueur when it comes to appealing to Russian voters, who tend to favor a strong army and steely leaders. Many voters in Nazareth Illit, a Jewish community of 52,000 on a hilltop next to mostly Arab Nazareth, named security issues as their top concern.

“Sharon was strong, and whatever he wanted, he did and he achieved,” said Mark Kotlarsky, 70, who moved to Israel from Ukraine 15 years ago. “Olmert is also strong.”

Others, however, remained unconvinced of Olmert’s qualities as Sharon’s political heir. Clara Placer, 55, a Russian-language teacher at the rally, said she was wary of Olmert, but admired Sharon and still planned to back Kadima.

“I don’t think there is an alternative at this moment,” she said.

Although many educated immigrants found their way into Israel’s middle class as teachers and doctors, others who arrived during the 1990s have struggled to find jobs and housing. They defy easy characterization as rightists by taking centrist stands or tilting leftward on social issues.

Many immigrants, for example, worry about how they will support themselves during old age because they were in their 40s or 50s on arrival -- too late to build up a comfortable pension here. Others complain that free market policies have hurt them.

However, analysts say few Russian voters are likely to go with the left-leaning Labor Party because they view its candidate, former union leader Amir Peretz, as an old-school socialist. The Russian-language media has mocked Peretz by comparing his broad mustache to that of Josef Stalin.

The array of political concerns, coupled with a tendency among immigrants to see themselves more as average Israelis as time passes, leads some scholars to bristle at the notion of a unified Russian bloc, despite the common language and a handful of television and radio stations catering to it .

“Immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not one single group. They came in different waves. They came from different parts of the former Soviet Union,” said Zeev Khanin, a lecturer in political studies at Bar Ilan University. “There is no single Russian vote.”

The main “Russian” political party, called Yisrael B'Aliyah and led by former refusenik Natan Sharansky, known for his defiance of the Soviet regime, folded after winning only two Knesset seats during the 2003 election. Most Russian voters sided with Sharon and Likud, and Sharansky’s party later joined Likud.

Dmitri Shimelfarb, Likud’s spokesman for the Russianlanguage media, described Russian voters as mobile and pragmatic.

“They don’t have any ‘isms’ about Israeli politics,” he said. “They know only issues in their lives, and they want somebody who can solve them.”