Russian Bloc in Israel Looks to a Strongman
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
BEERSHEBA, Israel -- The night began in Hebrew, then shifted to Russian.
That's when the fun began at the Desert Inn hotel, where Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Israel Is Our Home party, delivered a pair of speeches one recent evening that demonstrated why his party is rising faster than any other with less than a week to go before Israel's elections.
The hall was only half full for his Hebrew speech, which he used to outline his plan to draw Israel's final border in a way that would exclude many of the country's Arab citizens. Then the bouncy Russian folk tunes started, hands began clapping, and a lifeless rally became a dynamic standing-room-only event.
Elderly men and women called out "Ivet," Lieberman's Russian name, as he took the microphone to deliver the same message in his mother tongue and urge a show of Russian unity behind his candidacy. The response was electric.
"This is a crucial moment" for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to Israel after the Soviet Union's collapse, Lieberman said, "a last chance to be integrated. After 15 or 16 years here, they are still an isolated community."
Once the secular backbone of support for Ariel Sharon, Israel's Russian-speaking citizens have been searching for a new strongman since the prime minister's debilitating stroke. Most of them are turning to Lieberman, a 47-year-old immigrant from Moldova whose program has proved most appealing to the campaign's only bloc of floating voters.
Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union now number 1.3 million, and the 740,000 eligible voters among them make up about 15 percent of Israel's electorate. By voting as a cohesive unit, they have traditionally exercised far greater clout than their numbers would suggest.
Mostly poor, secular and preoccupied with Israel's security, the Russians -- as the group is collectively known even though they come from a number of former Soviet republics -- have often been decisive in determining which party governs the country. Pollsters estimate that the Russian bloc, on its own, will elect the equivalent of 19 of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats in the March 28 elections.
"The whole game for them this year is finding a new a leader," said Eliezer Feldman, a Russian immigrant and a leading pollster in the community. "They have come to realize that political programs don't mean much -- either they are impossible to implement or take too long to matter. What's most important is the personality."
The Russians are concentrated in several cities along the coastal plain, in the Galilee region and here in the Negev, Israel's poorest region, where resentment runs high among Russian Jews because of the soaring Arab birthrate, building by Arabs without permits and the competition for low-wage jobs.
Many Russian immigrants have never learned Hebrew and rely for information on their own newspapers, commonly xenophobic in tone, and two Russian-language television stations. They worry about rising crime rates, the Jewish state's prohibition of civil marriages and funerals, and the flagging of government services on which many depend.
But security is an overriding concern. A high proportion of Russians serve in the military, and many also use Israel's public transportation system, a prime target of Palestinian suicide bombers during the recent uprising.