Russian immigrant street politics, which we thought had long ago ceased to exist, is showing surprising signs of life. One of the most notable among them is the decision of MK Roman Bronfman (Yahad-The Democratic Choice) to break his association with Meretz and run on an independent list in the upcoming elections. "There's no personal or ideological crisis between me and Meretz," Bronfman told Haaretz, "but because of Meretz, I'm losing support from the immigrants. No one there, apart from me, talks to or about immigrants. On the other hand, I feel in Russian circles a longing for a liberal democratic party that will voice the desires of this public."
Bronfman gained indirect support for this effort from an interview, published in a Russian paper, with Dr. Ze'ev Khanin, an expert in sociology and political science at Bar-Ilan University and himself an immigrant. In that interview, the researcher determined there is a Russian left-wing camp, but it has no party of its own. He also estimated that Bronfman, as the representative of this camp, was worth two seats, but the question is how this potential would be translated politically. Bronfman decided the right way would actually be by running alone. However, he thinks that his agenda - separation of religion and state, civil rights, environmental protection and protection of the consumer - also applies to young Israelis, not necessarily Russians, whom he will try to bring into his party as well.
"Already in 2003, we spoke of two separations - one from the Palestinians and one of separating religion from the state," he says, "both of them can only benefit us." No, he has no intention of becoming Shinui, but he certainly will appeal to the disappointed constituents of that party, which is losing many of its Russian-speaking supporters.
No longer an `everyone'
Gorlevsky will not have the field to himself. After the 2003 elections, mainly after the collapse of Yisrael b'Aliyah, the prevailing view was that Russian politics was dead. The fact is immigrants voted like "everyone." The primary change now taking place is that there no longer is an "everyone." This description refers mainly to the Likud party, which, thanks to the eight mandates it received from Russian speakers, became the largest immigrant party. After the elections, it gained another two seats from Yisrael b'Aliyah. One quarter of the Likud's current 40 seats, comes from immigrants.
The sense was that the pendulum swing according to which the immigrants voted over the course of 15 years - one time for the right-wing candidate (Shamir, Netanyahu, Sharon) and one time for the left-wing candidate (Rabin, Barak) - halted with the Likud. To be sure, even after the elections, Likud chairman Ariel Sharon embarked on a series of measures to entrench the immigrants' connection to his party for generations to come. He invested thought and money in it, brought the remains of Yisrael b'Aliyah into the Likud and merged them into one party, set up an immigrants' forum and funded a Russian-language journal.
In the situation that evolved, before a big bang or a little bang, it is not clear whether he set up an infrastructure for himself or set a trap for himself. In other words: Is the Russians' connection to the Likud, or is it to Sharon, personally?
This question was put into much sharper focus at the press conference convened by Benjamin Netanyahu to announce his entry into the race for party leadership and the position of prime minister. On the dais to his left, sitting as close as possible to him, was former minister Natan Sharansky. There were also two other immigrant representatives in the Likud there - former minister Yuli Edelstein and even MK Michael Gorlevsky. This was not a random selection of guests; Netanyahu wanted to specifically signal: the immigrants are with me. Is that true? Only to a limited extent. Netanyahu never lost his standing among the immigrants. Even when their support for Sharon soared to unprecedented highs of almost 70 percent, Netanyahu maintained a steady backing of around 30 percent. That's good, but not enough. Now he is building on the legacy Sharon is bequeathing him: 131 central committee seats allocated to Yisrael b'Aliyah, most if not all of them associates of Sharansky, who himself is close to Netanyahu.
But not everything is ideology, and not even the numbers. There is nothing like the revenge instinct for motivating politics and there is no shortage of it. The full force exerted by Sharon to prevent Sharansky's appointment as chairman of the Jewish Agency will not boomerang back at him. "Undoubtedly he will take full advantage of this card in the election campaign," acknowledges MK Edelstein. "Sharon hurt not only Sharansky, but also the pride of all immigrants. And not just them. The Likud is an emotional party and even the people most faithful to Sharon, non-Russian speakers, say they are ashamed of what he did to Sharansky. They say it's not fair."
However, Edelstein knows the "Likud led by Sharon," is a powerful brand among immigrants. The fact is, this combination wiped out Yisrael b'Aliyah. From this starting point, immigrant supporters of Netanyahu are already organizing into an operations headquarters. Edelstein himself heads the immigration and absorption committee of the Likud secretariat, a body that seeks to become the active leadership of the immigrants. It would be nice to be a fly on the wall there when they discuss Sharon.
Sharon is depending mainly on himself. Among Russian speakers he is still maintaining a high level of personal popularity, which was not affected by the disengagement. Most of the immigrants supported the disengagement. Its opponents were heard; its supporters remained confused and quiet. But Sharon also watched Netanyahu's press conference. He also read the polls that place Avigdor Lieberman at the top of the list of popular politicians among Russians. Lieberman is talking about a conservative, right-wing party, but at this stage has to build mainly on Russian speakers.
The experience of the 2003 elections, when he headed the National Union, which also included Tekumah and Moledet, taught him a tough lesson. Then he believed so much in the power of synergy that in the top 10 places he slotted three "Russians" and seven "Israelis." It didn't pay off. Now he plans to do the reverse: the top 10 slots will have seven "Russians." Those around him are careful to stress, for reassurance, the fact that Yisrael Hasson, the former deputy chief of the Shin Bet security service, who recently joined with Lieberman, is an immigrant, from Damascus, but nevertheless someone who experienced the tribulations of the absorption process.
Sharon and Netanyahu will then find another "Russian" party to their right. The gist of the battle in this arena is expected to take place, naturally, between Netanyahu and Lieberman, who appeal to the same target constituency. Sharon will be more suited to immigrants who moved to the center, and they represent the majority. Once they voted for Sharon on the right, now they will vote for Sharon on the left. Their pendulum swing will be preserved, only this time it will stop on the other side, at the same exact candidate.
Sharon will also need authentic Russians on his side. The natural choice is the deputy immigration minister, Marina Solodkin. When her colleagues in Yisrael b'Aliyah - Sharansky and Edelstein - set up a Russian speakers' branch of disengagement opponents within the Likud, Solodkin voiced open support for Sharon. She is certainly an asset. In all polls among the Russian sector, she enjoys a high degree of personal popularity. She is the ultimate social worker of the sector. However, she is far less popular within the Likud Central Committee. If Sharon leaves the Likud, she has nothing to look for there. Everyone knows this, and all the parties - from Meretz to Lieberman, are wooing Solodkin. "Indeed, I received offers from everyone, except the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs," she confirmed this week, "but I'm loyal to the head of the system. My fate is the same as the fate of the Sharon group. When I know what's happening with him, I'll be open to offers."
One of the first people Sharon summoned for a meeting after Netanyahu's press conference was MK Michael Nudelman. Nudelman is a strange story: Officially, he is actually a representative of the Aliyah party, which together with MK Yuri Stern joined the Yisrael Beiteinu party. When he left Yisrael Beiteinu due to his support for the disengagement, he was left alone, engrossed in a legal battle over the NIS 5 million Yisrael Beiteinu spent on the municipal elections campaign and he claims the money is his. He is not a shining star, but he is a professor and a gentleman, and open to suggestions. The meeting with Sharon during which Nudelman presented his doctrine after the disengagement, ended with Sharon saying: "I hope we'll work together after the elections as well."
If further proof of the existence of a Russian political arena is necessary, Yaakov Kedmi is it. When the veteran immigrant, and the former head of Netiv, six months ago announced his plan to form an independent Russian party, there were some who saw this move primarily as evidence of full cooperation with Ehud Barak, a personal friend, who at the time announced his intention to return to political life. In the meantime, Barak hasn't taken off, but Kedmi is proceeding. "Undoubtedly there is room for an immigrant party," he said this week. "After Lieberman announced he is not a sectarian party, there is no force representing the interests of Russians. Calling Sharansky the `immigrants' representative' isn't even a joke. The people with me, whom we will soon introduce, represent the state in which we want to be, which we thought we were immigrating to, and it is completely different from what we found here."
In a closed session on the future of Israeli society, Kedmi recently declared that if society blocks the advancement of immigrants and prevents them from participating in running it, they would take it by force. They say the symbol of his new party will be a white bear, a Russian version of the Black Panthers.
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