A small step, hidden behind the shadow of large events, is now being taken that could affect the political map of Israel for years to come. Its purpose is to forge a permanent, long-lasting bond between the Likud Party and the Russian-speaking public, and to turn this community into the party's voters once and for all.
The campaign is being promoted by none other than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in an effort to end the to-and-fro pendulum that has characterized the swing of the immigrant vote. The basis for the exercise is the fact that, despite their natural affinity with the right, Russian-speaking voters have taken sharp U-turns in their voting patterns over the past decade.
In 1992, they largely supported Yitzhak Rabin; in 1996, most of them backed Benjamin Netanyahu; in 1999, they threw their vote behind Ehud Barak; in 2001 and 2003, they backed Ariel Sharon. In the most recent elections, with the return of the single ballot system, they transformed the Likud into the biggest immigrant party of all.
Now the aim is to lock the Russian immigrant vote permanently to Likud, if not for generations then at least for years, as was done with the Sephardi constituency. As soon as a green budget light is given for the already formulated plan, "Operation Three Committees" will begin.
The campaign already has the go-ahead from the Likud Immigrant Forum, which convened not long ago with the party's director-general, Arik Brami. It calls for a "hotline committee" through which public-service hotlines will operate in cities with large immigrant populations, offering immigrants legal advice and help in finding jobs; an "events committee" that would initiate tours, trips and symposia for immigrants; and a "communications committee," whose first task would be to publish a Likud newspaper in Russian.
The project's immediate objective is to involve immigrants in the coming local elections in the fall. In the longer term, the anchoring of immigrants to the Likud is intended to thwart any future attempt to set up a new immigrant party on the ruins of Yisrael b'Aliyah.
"Finally, the Likud has begun to get down to business," says a content Dr. Vladimir Shklar, director of the department of competitive sport at the Jerusalem Municipality and a former Israel fencing champion. He lost to Michael Gorlovsky in the contest over the "immigrant" slot in the Likud's Knesset list in the last election.
For 10 of his 13 years in Israel, Shklar has been active in Likud, and he currently heads the party's Immigrant Forum. "The fact that the Likud has succeeded big time among the immigrant public is largely because Sharon pushed the issue," he says.
"When I made the rounds of the branches during the campaign, everyone knew that I was the prime minister's representative. We felt we weren't damaged goods in the party. They gave us budgets and authority. During the years when elections were with the direct vote for prime minister, the Likud always came to the immigrants through a middleman - sometimes Sharansky, sometimes Lieberman. The real Likud people weren't part of it. Now everything is different.
"Our immediate goal is 10 seats for Likud in the next election." In the last election, the immigrants gave Likud seven to eight Knesset seats. "Likud would consider any outcome that falls short of that goal a failure," added Shklar.
The infrastructure for the new program was laid when the recent Knesset campaign was at its height. The 40 immigrant staffs that were distributed across the country and the individuals who headed those staffs are now the foundation of the Immigrant Forum that is headed by Shklar.
He relates that while the electoral campaign was still in progress, Sharon stayed in constant contact with the immigrant activists, stayed abreast of developments, and pushed them to get the job done. What could have been conceived as a manipulative pursuit of the immigrant vote came across as an expression of genuine interest and recognition of the importance of the Russian-speaking public.
Shklar offers a personal story to illustrate what he means. Sharon concluded his electoral campaign among the immigrant public with a large gathering in Karmiel. Shklar was the Hebrew-to-Russian simultaneous translator at the event. Sharon took pains to correct his translation, in a bid to impress the immigrants with his familiarity with their language.
After the caucus, he apologized to Shklar, in case he had gone too far and upset him. Shklar said he wasn't hurt and it was actually pretty nice. For the same reason, he was greatly surprised two weeks after the election, at 10:00 P.M. one night, when Sharon telephoned him at home to apologize again.
"I am very disturbed by what I did," said the prime minister. "I think I hurt you." Shklar says he was moved to tears. "This was at the height of the coalition-building contacts, and three days before the war in Iraq," he recalls. "I told the prime minister that I was truly moved that at a time like this he found the time to apologize to me, even though he had not hurt me."
One week after this conversation, all 40 heads of the local immigrant staffs were summoned to the prime minister's office. They were the first group of activists with which Sharon met after the elections, a fact that filled them with pride. Even if Sharon had in the past acted this way with the Haredis - a group he subsequently abandoned - it did not worry them.
The meeting went over three hours, during which time Sharon rebuffed the pleas of his aides to end it. He listened to each individual present and had his picture taken with them - with him holding a chinik, a Russian kettle they had brought him as a gift.
The three hours may be the best investment of time Sharon has made in recent months. They went in feeling obliged, left feeling loved. At that session, it was decided to set up the Immigrant Forum. It also gave rise to a directive issued to the party's director-general that the forum be supported, structurally and financially.
It is doubtful if the drop in the level of support for Sharon among the Russian-speaking public over the past few weeks will alter in any way the process now underway. According to recent polls conducted among the immigrants by Dr. Alex Feldman of the Mutagim polling institute, support for Sharon by the immigrants has declined from 60 percent to 54 percent.
"It isn't a substantial decline, but it is the first slide in support for Sharon since 2001," says Feldman. He attributes the decline to the right wing of the Russian street's opposition to the road map, which is supported by only 25 percent of the Russian-speaking public.
Sharon, who benefited from his image among the immigrants as a "heroic and independent" figure, is now seen as not withstanding the pressure and caving in to the Americans. Even worse, the botched assassination attempt on Abdel Aziz Rantisi of Hamas made him look like someone who had succumbed to the pressure of extremists in his own party. These perceptions have eroded Sharon's image in the immigrant community, although he is still the leader of choice.
In the poll among immigrants that Feldman conducted last week, 34 percent of respondents reported that they would vote for Sharon if elections were held today, as opposed to 28 percent who said they would vote for Netanyahu. Some 17 percent would support Avigdor Lieberman.
The most significant point was that even now, 30 percent of respondents said they intended to vote Likud, only slightly less than the 33 percent that actually voted Likud in the recent national election. Support for Likud seems to have stabilized, although it is certainly not a given.
For this reason, and in order to prevent the seepage of votes to Lieberman, the representatives of the camp of extremist Moshe Feiglin have been integrated in the activities of the Immigrant Forum. Assia Antov, who represented the Feiglin camp in the contest for the immigrant slot in the Likud's Knesset list, is now a member of the editorial board of the Russian-language newspaper that the Likud is about to begin publishing.
"We're not extreme, we're romantic," Antov corrects. The resident of the settlement of Neve Menachem continues: "In fact, the immigrants like a party that has its share of disputes; after all, they never saw that in the Communist party in the Soviet Union. As far as they're concerned, the Likud of Feiglin can coexist with the Likud of Sharon, so long as the Likud remains ideological and does not become a Labor replica.
"Even the immigrants that oppose the road map are not opposed to Sharon. They are simply loyal to the Likud constitution, which states that there is no room for an Arab state west of the Jordan. In any event, Sharon likes the immigrants. I've spoken with him about it many times." Antov is now writing the lead article of the first newspaper, in which she will clarify the goals of the newspaper. It will go on to inform the immigrants of the history of the Likud, will let them know what is happening in the various branches, and will also raise issues of concern to the immigrant community, such as the Law of Return.
The first target of all this activity is the 30,000 immigrants who have registered as members of the Likud, to deepen their connection to the party. Later on, the circle will widen to appeal to the general public of Russian speakers. One figure whose absence from the program is quite glaring is MK Gorlovsky, who is the first representative of the immigrants in the Likud's Knesset faction.
However, Gorlovsky drew his electoral strength from Lieberman. What's more, in the wake of the double vote that brought about his removal from the Knesset, he has become the butt of jokes in the Russian-speaking community. Many of them revolve around his family name, which in Russian means "throat" - for instance, "democracy got stuck like a bone in his throat."
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