Culturally Russian, politically Israeli, immigrants lose their `sectoral' allure
Three political things happened recently in Israel's Russian-speaking community - Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party became part of a right-wing bloc; Bronfman's Democratic Choice party joined Meretz; and Likud and Labor pushed the reserved slots for FSU immigrants way down their Knesset lists.
Three political things happened recently in Israel's Russian-speaking community - Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party became part of a right-wing bloc; Roman Bronfman's Democratic Choice party joined Meretz; and the two big parties, Likud and Labor, pushed the reserved slots for FSU (former Soviet Union) immigrants way down their Knesset lists.
All of this points to a social and political shift in the Russian-speaking community - it has ceased to be a political "sector" and is now primarily a cultural community. So 23 Knesset mandates - Russian speakers are about 650,000 eligible voters - have become "Israeli."
For the first time this decade, the immigrants will not be an election kingmaker. In the previous four elections, prime ministerial candidates actively pursued the immigrant vote, as this vote in fact determined the outcomes of these elections. Even in 1992, before direct elections for prime minister, Labor won largely thanks to the immigrants' strong personal support for Yitzhak Rabin.
The end of this era is partly due to the return of the single-ballot electoral system - the immigrant parties now compete directly with Likud and Labor for votes, so their leaders are no longer campaigning on behalf of the big parties' prime ministerial candidates. In addition, Lieberman's rightist bloc and Bronfman's merger with Meretz offer immigrants the option of combining "Israeliness" with clear communal representation on either side of the political fence.
There is still one immigrant party between the two extremes - Natan Sharansky's Yisrael b'Aliyah - that has intentionally retained its ethnic character. Six years ago Sharansky defined his party as "Israeli" and was furious over the "sectoral" label. Today party spokesmen are happy to call it "the Russian Shas." Sharansky explains that the immigrant communities still have special needs that justify a sectoral party. Lieberman takes the opposite view: "We didn't come here to build a ghetto, we came to build a new society," he says.
For now, both are right. Yisrael b'Aliyah's approach still has about four seats' worth of hard-core supporters, mostly among newer or weaker immigrants. Eventually, however, this public will disappear - a process that has been accelerated over the past two years by the security threat, which has overshadowed community interests among many immigrant voters. Even if Lieberman's bloc is viewed as an "immigrant party" and Bronfman succeeds in attracting significant Russian support to Meretz, only about 30 percent of immigrants can now be considered potential supporters of an immigrant party.
This situation has enabled the large parties to alter their quest for immigrant voters. Likud has reserved the 29th spot on its Knesset slate for an immigrant - a realistic slot, according to the polls, but one which shows that it now takes its immigrant supporters for granted.