The day after the local elections, the expected has obviously come to pass: The "Russian" representation on local councils, as in the most recent Knesset elections, was significantly weakened. The dilution has two obvious manifestations: a decrease in Russian-speaking members of local councils and a steep drop in the number of deputy mayors, until now a stronghold of this community's local power.
The 1998 municipal elections put 195 Russian speakers on local councils, about 130 of them from the latest wave of immigration, 105 representing Yisrael b'Aliyah. Over the last five years, the community boasted 20 Russian-speaking deputy mayors, a significant power bloc. This achievement at the municipal level was deemed by many to be more significant that the community's Knesset representation.
The initial vote counts and early coalition feelers suggest that at present, the overall Russian-speaking share of local council members has now dropped to about 120, from various party lists. Only 15 are expected to become deputy mayors, and even these are mainly in small towns. The Russian street split its votes this time around, and as many as three "Russian" lists competed in some communities. Even if they passed the threshold, they would come to coalition negotiations as small players without prospects for a deputy mayor's chair.
Of Avigdor Lieberman's predicted "three or four Russian-speaking mayors," only one remains - incumbent Mark Bassin in Bnei Ayish, who was reelected. All the other Russian-speaking candidates from Yisrael Beiteinu, like those in Be'er Sheva, Kiryat Yam, and Acre, withdrew their candidacies before election day or failed to win. In Upper Nazareth, Ronen Plot, a veteran immigrant and former director-general of the Absorption Ministry from Yisrael b'Aliyah, ran for mayor this time with Likud support in an effort to rout veteran incumbent Menachem Ariav. Lieberman, a National Union member, lent his support in that race to Ariav, a Labor Party member, ruining Plot's chances despite the personal support of Ariel Sharon.
Lieberman's behavior is causing an uproar in the higher echelons of the Likud and out in the branches as well. Aside from the struggle among the various immigrant lists, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Likud battled mightily for the immigrant vote in this election. Two days before the voting, the Likud published the second edition of Golus, the party's new newspaper in Russian. Alongside a major interview with Sharon, the first few pages were devoted to an urgent call to immigrants to go out and vote for the Likud list and buttress the party's strength.
But even that call was lukewarm. Some Likud members were not anxious for the immigrants to turn out, fearing that, in the privacy of the voting booth, they would prefer Lieberman and would only fortify his power base in advance of a possible return to the Likud. This is the hottest story behind the scenes in the local elections. Many in the party expect Lieberman to ask to join the Likud "to be there when Bibi makes his comeback," as one senior immigrant Likud member put it. "A stronger Lieberman is not convenient in terms of the Sharon camp's perspective on the future," he explains, "although it would be hard for the Likud leadership to oppose a merger with Yisrael Beiteinu and its four Knesset members."
If indeed Lieberman does ask to join the Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu in the future, Lieberman can, in the wake of this most recent election, present a handsome personal achievement. Despite the failure to place Russian-speaking deputy mayors, three mayors from his party were elected this time around: Meir Cohen in Dimona, Shaul Kemisa in Hatzor Haglilit and Bassin in Bnei Ayish. Meanwhile, some 75 Russian-speaking local council members are expected from among the Yisrael Beiteinu local lists. The morning after, party members were not busy stacking up their achievements in relation to other Russian lists, but in comparison to the successes of the Likud. This is the real game and one in which Lieberman has had more than some success. In most of the 38 localities where Yisrael Beiteinu lists competed, the party did better than the Likud. Among these, Yisrael Beiteinu is pleased to count Ofakim, Or Yehuda, Be'er Sheva, Bat Yam, Dimona, Modi'in, Mitzpe Ramon, and Kiryat Yam; in Ramleh, Acre, Migdal Ha'emek, Hatzor Haglilit and Kiryat Yam, Yisrael Beiteinu had the largest list. The 10 "national" lists, as the Likud called the immigrant lists it ran in communities where the local Likud machine had trouble absorbing immigrant candidates, meantime managed to put only 15 representatives on local councils. Still, in assessing the election results, Likud members think that the immigrant vote is what prevented a broad failure by the party, especially in small towns with many immigrant residents. "Without the Russian vote, the Likud would have crashed in these elections," says a key activist in the party's immigrant sector. In any case, the election results are Lieberman's future electoral assets, but an achievement limited to the Russian-speaking community, whose political power continues to erode.
"The revolution is over," sighed activists on the Russian street yesterday who forlornly follow the ongoing erosion in immigrant representation at the national and local levels. Many think that the impressive integration of immigrant candidates into local councils constituted a profound social revolution - even more so than did the political success of Yisrael Beiteinu in the Knesset elections of 1996.
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