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Arad is in dire straits - that much the Negev city's 10 mayoral candidates agree. Former residents have fled to Tel Aviv, employment opportunities are slim and crime is on the rise. Sudanese refugees are now a significant presence in the city once hailed as the pearl of Israel's south.

"There are 10 candidates for 20,000 voters here," says Eli, a veteran Arad resident, amid elections yesterday. "Consider that only 50 percent of those eligible will vote, and there's one candidate for every 1,000 residents. It's just crazy."

Arad has been run by an elected municipal panel ever since then-Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit dismissed Motti Brill from the mayorship three years ago.

Half of all eligible voters are from the former Soviet Union, and 17 percent of residents are above 65 - double Israel's average.

"The platforms of eight of the candidates are almost identical - on education, employment and keeping the youth here. The choice is really between the Russian immigrants and the city veterans," Eli says.

The Likud's Moshe Edri and Tali Poloskov of Yisrael Beiteinu are considered front-runners.

Should she win, Poloskov would be the first Soviet immigrant to serve as a mayor in Israel. "I've heard remarks like 'I won't vote for that Russian,' and 'Who is this Russian who wants to take over the city?'" she says. "But then I sit down and explain to them that I'm already Israeli, that my kids speak only Hebrew. How long will I be viewed as a new immigrant? They understand what I'm saying and there are no hard feelings - I don't think there's racism here."

Edri says he too is convinced that the election is about issues, not ethnicity. "The elections are over the future of the city of Arad. For 20 years we had leadership that didn't know how to demand budgeting from the government. My friends and I have no place for racism."

Poloskov, he says, "is turning the elections into an ethnic issue. She talks one way in Hebrew to the veteran voters, then in another way in Russian to the immigrants. She tells them why it's important for them to vote for 'their candidate.'"

Eli takes an entirely different view. "We'll all lose in these elections. We had an excellent appointed council head who had started rehabilitating the city, but now the future of Arad will be ruined because of petty politics."