In 1996, Yisrael b'Aliyah made political and social history when, as a newly-formed immigrant party, it won seven Knesset seats. Two days ago, as the only remaining Russian immigrant party, it made history again when it took a nosedive, ending up with only two seats. In the 1999 elections, Yisrael b'Aliyah garnered 167,000 votes, for six seats (though it lost two when MKs Roman Bronfman and Alexander Tsinker bolted the party); on Tuesday, 67,000 people voted for Yisrael b'Aliyah. In four years, 100,000 voters defected from the immigrant party's ranks.
Natan Sharansky's resignation yesterday from the Knesset brought to a close a unique period, and phenomenon, in the Israeli political arena - during which a million immigrants from the CIS not only were major players, but made and unmade prime ministers. These elections reflected the Israelization of the nation's Russian speakers, who are still a cultural community, but have ceased to be a separate political constituency.
"The Russian vote," translating into some 23 Knesset seats, was distributed among nearly all the parties this time around: Likud received more than seven seats from Russian speakers; Shinui, nearly four; Meretz and Labor, one seat apiece. Early estimates show the National Union with six seats from Russian speakers, although they didn't vote for Avigdor Lieberman as an "immigrants' MK," but as a right-wing MK. The Russian-speaking community, which has rightist affinities, voted Israeli, not sectoral. It was a change that Yisrael b'Aliyah failed to see coming.
Out of touch
"Evidently we were out of touch," admitted Deputy Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein yesterday. "Our slogan for immigrant voters ("Yes: for you; yes: with you") did very well in polls and focus groups, but not in the field. It's peculiar, but the silliest thing would be to get angry at the voters. We have to look at where we went wrong and what it implies."
Edelstein notwithstanding, among party members yesterday there was tremendous disappointment at the betrayal by so many. Moreover, people were angry at the political system that once relied on them to deliver the immigrant vote in support of prime ministers, but then lost interest in them when the one-ballot system was reinstated. Yisrael b'Aliyah's existence, more than that of any other party, was dependent on the two-ballot system. The party was born when direct election of the prime minister was introduced; when that system was abandoned, the party all but disappeared.
Natan Sharansky, in consequence, resigned from the Knesset, which enabled Marina Solodkin, the party's number three, to become an MK. He is staying on as party chairman since, without Sharansky, there is no Yisrael b'Aliyah. Of his decision to resign, Sharansky said: "Clearly, in light of the election results, Yisrael b'Aliyah must seek a new future and aim for a wider reach by broadening its target population and forging connections with new constituencies, aside from immigrants."
He seems to have left the door open to joining a Sharon administration (and will recommend Sharon be designated by the president to set up the next government) even without being an MK. His close associates said yesterday that although two Knesset seats do not give them sufficient stature to demand a senior portfolio, Sharansky's personal standing rules out a minor portfolio. "Why should Sharon waste a major spot like the Housing Ministry on him?" remarked a senior party official, adding that, on the other hand, "the environment or Diaspora affairs portfolios would be a real joke. It's about Sharansky's reputation in public life."
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