Vague promises are not enough
The 650,000 Russian-speaking voters have once again become a key axis for the election campaign.
Three years after the "Russian vote" was declared officially dead in the 2003 elections, the 650,000 Russian-speaking voters have once again become a key axis for the election campaign, and the object of serious courtship by all the parties. Nonetheless, the death certificate issued to the Russian vote was not completely wrong - it was simply inaccurate. It was the "Russian sector" that ceased to exist. A community remains. As opposed to a sector, which is characterized by similar socioeconomic needs and patterns, a community is characterized mostly by shared desires and longings.
Over time, the socioeconomic problems of the immigrants became similar to those of the general public in Israel. However, they remained a united community in terms of culture and common ambitions. In an arena that is all about the politics of identity, those elements bear decisive weight.
The expression of the existence of a community with common and discrete patterns of thinking and behavior can be seen clearly in the response to two events in the past two months. During the weeks when the Israeli bon ton dictated the assessment that the main consideration in the elections would be socioeconomic, every Russian speaker knew (in the polls) that the main motive for voting would be, once again, political-security. They knew this, even though as a collective they still do not belong to the mainstream way of thought.
The other expression of their community was the reaction to the rise of Hamas. Despite the rightist sentiments of the majority of Russian speakers, the reaction to the Hamas victory in the Russian media and among Russian speakers was much more restrained than that of the Israeli street in general. That is because the Russian community does not draw the distinction between the Fatah and Hamas, a distinction common in the Israeli street. For most Russian speakers - and naturally, this is a generalization - there is no big difference between the two.
That is one of the reasons why Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign of intimidation and fear after the rise of the Hamas failed to work on Russian speakers. If all Arabs are the same, there is no special reason to be afraid of the strengthening of one element among them. That's why Avigdor Lieberman allows himself to mock the Netanyahu slogan "strong against Hamas" in Yisrael Beitenu's Russian-language campaign material. "It's a good slogan for the Palestinian parliamentary elections, which are already over. What does it have to do with the elections in Israel?" the brochure asks.
Lieberman's evident success among Russian speakers in the current campaign is also an expression of the sense of "community." If Lieberman went to the voters with the exact same platform - but without the Russian accent - he would not get the same levels of support that he now enjoys from the Russian voters.
On the other hand, one can assume that if he were not "Russian," more veteran Israelis would be supporting his plan for a territorial and population swap, an idea that actually originated in academia and the veteran security elite. But Lieberman, despite his efforts to shed the label, remains a community leader. In the eyes of Russian speakers, "he's one of us," a fact that creates a glass wall between him and the heart of Israeliness. In the Russian media he sometimes faces criticism that his list is not "Russian enough," while in Israeli eyes, it is too Russian.
Ariel Sharon understood trends among the immigrants from the former Soviet Union very well. The establishment of Kadima complicated Sharon's plan to anchor their votes for Likud the way Menachem Begin anchored the Mizrahi vote for Likud in 1977. The candidates are now trying to connect to the community in primitive ways. Ehud Olmert mentions his parents' origins in the town of Samra, Amir Peretz remembers that part of his family went to Russia after the expulsion from Spain.
The Russian speakers ridicule such gestures. They aren't looking for another "Russian party" but are definitely looking for authentic representation. And it is not only to promote their own desires but to turn the solutions for their community into national solutions in education, the economy and in relations between religion and the state. Because of the special characteristics of this immigration, which came out of perestroika, and because of their years here, the Russian voters have long since ceased seeking integration: they want to lead, to at least be full partners in shaping the image of the state on the basis of "their" solutions.
"Solutions" is the key word in the race for the Russian vote. Unlike veteran Israelis, who learned to make do with vague promises, the Russian voters are demanding declarative statements; with the departure of Sharon from the political arena that desire has become no less important than the longing for a "strong leader."
However, the preference is also determined by the voter's profile. The hard core of Kadima is made up of former Shinui voters who define themselves as the pragmatic middle class. The Lieberman voters are older, and belong to a lower class. With nearly 40 percent of the Russian voters undecided - a much higher level than in the general population - the name of the game is votes in exchange for solutions.