The Russian campaign
To court the Russian-speaking public, Peretz is fighting racism, Olmert is fighting anonymity and Netanyahu is fighting his past.
The Russian-speaking community represents a potential 18-20 Knesset seats in the 2006 elections. Unlike as in past elections, there is no longer a definitive "Russian party." Even Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu is a mixed party of veteran immigrants. The Russian-speaking community has become the main focus of four parties who have entered the ring to battle for control: Kadima, Likud, Labor and Israel Beiteinu. In addition, Ariel Sharon's absence from the political arena has increased the availability of eight "Russian seats" previously dedicated to Kadima.
"Russians" have become the target population not only because of the number of seats they represent but because they exhibit the most flexible voting patterns. In current elections, the Russian-speaking community is no longer the tabula rasa of the Israeli political scene. Most of its members have been living in Israel for years, and they are no longer gullible.
Thus, the economic press conference Benjamin Netanyahu held met with stiff criticism from the Russian press - the community remembers his past economic decrees all too well. His response to Hamas' rise to power is accompanied by memories of the strength the movement gained while Netanyahu was prime minister. The community remembers Peretz for the closed doors during National Insurance Institute and Employment Service strikes.
A month and a half before elections, parties are struggling to cope with the difficulties of campaigning in the Russian-speaking community and all of them hope to conquer the hearts of the Russian-speaking voting public.
At the beginning of his campaign, Amir Peretz considered placing himself at the helm of Labor's immigrant campaign headquarters. This was supposed to be a bold statement, like the announcement by Ariel Sharon that he would lead Kadima's Arab campaign headquarters. But Peretz finally appointed MK Ephraim Sneh to the position. According to all polls, Labor will receive 0.3 percent of immigrant votes and it is all uphill from there. Sneh is still nursing a grudge with the Russian press, which he says is engaged in a "character assassination" of his party. He cites subliminal messages: "They use the term 'Cheka,' the name of the Communist central committee, whenever they report on the Labor Party Central Committee conference." Sneh continues: "The reader sees Brezhnev before his eyes. When they report on a Likud conference, they just call it the 'central committee.' Peretz has become the target of racial slurs in the media - something between Stalin and a court jester."
Peretz lent weight to this image in a series of mistakes he made in appearances before the Russian press. He is now trying to amend these impressions. Instead of playing the fool on television, he presents in-depth interviews outlining his mission. His socioeconomic platform suits immigrants. They know this as well, but they do not believe him. The community discusses his lack of education in the open, and his ethnic background behind closed doors. "We will present the immigrants with a Peretz who they do not know," Sneh promises. "Newspaper ads this week will emphasize what we commit ourselves to doing for them. We have a winning card: If Amir is unable to fulfill his promises, he will have no right to exist [politically] - that is our guarantee."
Peretz is now trying to meet with as many Russian-speaking immigrants as possible. Personal contact is his strong point. He has no intention of responding to racism. "We considered and decided against it," Sneh says. "We are reluctant to address the ethnic issue."
Over the weekend, the Likud suffered a blow: Russian-language sites on the Internet published quotes by Alexei Sitnikov, a senior Russian consultant, imported from Moscow to assist the party in its campaign. Sitnikov explained that Russian election consultants, who operate in foreign nations, not only promote candidates in those nations, but promote Russian interests. Kadima savored these statements.
Despite that, the Likud is gaining strength in the immigrant community: It started the campaign with one seat and now controls three and a half in polls. Even before beginning its media campaign, the Likud had an advantage due to the Russian press, which does not necessarily admire the Likud but does create a "right-wing" climate. Several articles referred to the evacuation of Amona as a pogrom perpetrated by non-Jewish soldiers on observant Jews, while self-proclaimed and tacit Likud spokesmen frequently appear in Russian media.
"I do not believe in advertising. I believe in a combination of educational publicity and work on the ground," says Sasha Klein, the Likud's election strategist in the Russian-speaking community. This week, Likud activists will begin to knock on the doors of Russian speakers. They will tell them, "You are smart - start thinking." In addition, they will distribute "Only Facts," a four-page pamphlet presenting Netanyahu's views. The pamphlet includes, among other data, the number of Kalashnikov rifles in the Palestinian Authority. "It will not only instill fear but present policy and social solutions," Klein promises.
Israel Beiteinu formulated an interesting list. Understanding that there is no longer a Russian party, Avigdor Lieberman waited almost until the last moment before promoting MK Yuri Stern to second place ahead of former Shin Bet security services leader Yisrael Hasson. Despite Lieberman's desire to appeal to a general audience, he emphasized the special character of the party list. According to a poll conducted by Dr. Mina Tzemach, five of six or seven of Lieberman's mandates will come from the immigrant community.
Inclusion of former deputy police chief Yitzhak Aharonowitz on the list was also a wise move. Relations between the community and police remain one of the thorniest issues among these voters. Lieberman, who openly strives to attain the interior security portfolio, maintains direct focus on these issues by means of nonprofit organizations that support his agenda. Including a senior police official on the list is a way of addressing these problems on behalf of immigrants.
Assisted by strategist Arthur Finkelstein, Lieberman is building the foundation of the party's campaign on what he sees as the party 's main edge - credibility. His first ad presented Lieberman alongside Netanyahu and Olmert while asking, "His word is law?" Only the box next to Lieberman was ticked.
Lieberman's main adversary in the fight for immigrants' votes is Netanyahu, and this presents Lieberman with a problem. While focus groups indicate that Netanyahu is considered to be a mere alternative and Lieberman is considered more deserving of the position of prime minister, Lieberman is not considered a realistic choice. Despite that, Lieberman's working principle is based on the assumption that Kadima will eventually lose steam and Israel Beiteinu will achieve double-digit results.
While Kadima, led by Ariel Sharon, appeared to be a shoo-in among immigrant voters, circumstances have changed now that Olmert has replaced him. Kadima lost three seats from Russian-speaking voters, leaving it with about five in polls. The Hamas rise to power increased that public's yearning for a strong leader who is identified with the right wing. Kadima officials say that, fortunately for them, yearning for strength is not translated into yearning for Netanyahu, and he is not considered sufficiently right-wing by the community.
Kadima's guarantee of support from the Russian-speaking community rests with the inclusion of six Russian-speaking candidates on the party list. The promotion of Deputy Immigrant Absorption Minister Marina Solodkin to sixth place sends a reverberating message. In its first election ads, the six Russian speakers were presented as "your commando force."
Kadima also enlisted community activists from Israel Beiteinu and other parties. The party was boosted this week when Nada Chuzhoy, chair of Labor's immigrant organization, and a group of Labor activists joined Kadima.
Kadima researcher Kalman Geyer concludes that the determining factor will be whether the Russian community considers Olmert to be Sharon's heir. The official and self-imposed silence adopted by Kadima in light of the prime minister's medical condition worked against the party in the Russian community, which has almost no knowledge of Olmert. This week Olmert is slated to start a massive publicity campaign in the Russian sector.
"On the strategic level, we will emphasize that Arik presents a heritage, and mainly that he prepared us for all the options and all possible outcomes," explains Arcady Mezin, campaign chairman for the Russian-speaking community.
Kadima expects a fierce fight: One Russian newspaper described Olmert as a man who illegally attained the position of acting prime minister. The campaign for an unknown candidate in an adversarial climate will come up against Netanyahu's Russian advisers, who are known for their unbridled fondness for negative campaigns against their enemies.