The War for Israel’s Russian Vote Shifts Into High Gear – and Lieberman Is Still Winning

Likud’s attacks on the former defense minister are full of inaccuracies and backfire to hurt Netanyahu – but Yisrael Beiteinu is offering its own half-truths, and is losing younger voters

A giant Likud Party election banner shows Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with a caption above reading "Netanyahu, in another league", in Tel Aviv, on July 28, 2019.
AFP

Followers of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook page in Russian were informed two weeks ago that he had an important announcement for them. It wasn’t a promise for after the September 17 election but a project about to begin: “Today we opened a new public housing complex for the elderly – mostly new immigrants and Holocaust survivors. This time – in the heart of Tel Aviv.”

The post was accompanied by a picture showing Netanyahu touring an unidentified building with others including Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant and Likud’s campaign manager for the Russian-speaking community, former Yisrael Beiteinu MK Robert Ilatov.

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This sensational news received largely skeptical responses. Many wondered where the building was and why its exact location hadn’t been divulged. Others even doubted the existence of the building and wanted to see the lucky people who had received an apartment there.

And some chose sarcasm. “Ilatov should have been appointed an adviser a long time ago,” wrote one man who shared the Facebook post. “He’s been an adviser for two weeks and now they’ve built a home for old people. By the end of the election campaign he’ll build another 300 like this!”

Yisrael Beiteinu campaign materials seen in a flower shop, August 2019.
Ilan Assayag

It turns out that the news was true – but only partly. The building is being built by the Amigur public housing company on Tel Aviv’s Hashalom Road and is being funded by the Construction and Housing Ministry and the Jewish Agency – though it’s actually an expansion of an old Amigur project that was renovated recently.

It really is intended for the elderly, some of whom are new immigrants, but the building is far from opening. Construction began only a few months ago and is scheduled to be finished in April – and only sometime after that will people begin to move in. Not a single voter will be living there at the time of next month’s election.

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The building built by the Amigur public housing company on Hashalom Road in Tel Aviv.
Meged Gozani

The story of the housing complex has been pretty much forgotten, Likud isn’t really mentioning it anymore, and that should come as no surprise. In general, the issues Russian-speaking Israelis are interested in include public housing for the elderly, civil marriage, recognition of their Jewishness, pensions for ‘90s immigrants who haven’t worked enough years to receive adequate pensions, and the opening of grocery stores on Shabbat.

Both Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu have had a hard time adding these issues to their campaigns. The reason is simple: Neither of the rival parties has chalked up any impressive achievements on any of these issues for the past 20 years. That’s why the election campaign, lacking substance, has turned personal, sometimes low, and filled with imprecision on both sides. It’s a war of images, but an achievement in this war by either side could decide the next government.

The Soviet-born Lieberman began his campaign with the advantage: his image as the “protector of the nonreligious” who in May prevented the formation of a government between the right and ultra-Orthodox – with the emphasis on the ultra-Orthodox – and got the September election called. At first, voters shifted toward Lieberman, says Viacheslav Konstantinov, a statistician and demography expert who studies the voting patterns of the Russian-speaking community. “After that, there was movement back,” he said.

Indeed, it seems the battle over Russian-speaking voters is largely between Netanyahu and Lieberman. “In recent years, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu have split about 70 percent of the vote of people from the former Soviet Union,” Konstantinov said. “About 40 percent support Lieberman and 30 percent Likud. The rest of the votes are divided between the rest of the parties, on the right and the left.”

A key factor is age. In a study on the voting patterns of immigrants from the former Soviet Union from the ‘90s through 2015, Konstantinov found that younger, better-off and more-educated olim – new immigrants – tend to distance themselves from sectional parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu. Support for the parties of the center and left on one side, and for the parties to the right of Likud (Habayit Hayehudi in the 2015 election) on the other, has grown among these voters.

In 2015, only 19 percent of Russian-speaking olim who voted for Lieberman were under 40, while 70 percent who voted for Habayit Hayehudi were. With Likud it was less radical: About 34 percent were under 40, 30 percent were between 40 and 59, and 35.5 percent were 60 and older.

‘An aggressive campaign’

It’s hard to say that Likud ignored the “Russian vote” in the past. Over the years, Likud would run campaigns in Russian, both on social media and on the streets. But before the last election, Netanyahu made sure to be interviewed no less than three times on Channel 9, which broadcasts mostly in Russian, more than on any other television station. Now, when he views Lieberman as a threat to the establishment of a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox government, things are heating up as Likud tries to steal votes from Lieberman.

Officials at Likud headquarters refuse to say how much the party has invested in attracting the Russian vote, but they admit the sums have grown significantly. Last week TheMarker reported that Likud was spending 20,000 shekels ($5,740) a week on Facebook ads in Russian.

“This time it’s an aggressive campaign,” said political commentator Gabi Volfson of the website newsru.co.il, adding that Netanyahu’s goal, “at the very least, is to prevent Yisrael Beiteinu from growing stronger on the Russian street.”

How can this be done? Anna Barsky, anchorwoman and political commentator on Channel 9 and Israel’s public broadcaster Kan, said that from the beginning the Likud campaign included messages of “Lieberman cheated you,” “All he did was talk for 20 years,” “He doesn’t keep his word” – and now Netanyahu will make things right.

Barsky, who also writes a column in the daily Maariv, said this is why “Netanyahu was photographed with public housing sites in the background. But later Likud conducted a poll and realized that this didn’t exactly help them.”

Likud’s current strategy for Russian-speakers could be called two-pronged. The first message being emphasized, also in the party’s Hebrew campaign, is that Lieberman will bring about the establishment of a left-wing government. The campaign mentions statements by Lieberman that seem to imply that he will recommend Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz for prime minister, despite Lieberman’s statements that he will recommend the candidate who agrees to form “a broad national government.”

The other message is that Yisrael Beiteinu is no longer relevant, “the time of sectional parties has passed.” The solution, Likud says, is to join the ruling party and “have influence on the things Lieberman hasn’t managed to change for 20 years.”

Following this strategy, last month Likud announced on a number of Russian websites that “Yisrael Beiteinu activists are abandoning Lieberman en masse and moving to Likud.” The announcement was accompanied by quotes from activists and from Netanyahu, who had met with them.

But many say that this maneuver has stirred resentment among Russian-speakers. “A lot of people close to me who have never voted for Yisrael Beiteinu are now going to vote for them,” said Vladimir Kapustin, a social activist involved in local politics in Rishon Letzion. Activists who defected to Likud are seen as an attack on the party identified with the Russian-speaking community, Kapustin says.

Maxim Babitski, a former high-profile activist for Yisrael Beiteinu and now a member of Likud – and the deputy mayor of Rishon Letzion – says the attacks on Lieberman are playing right into the Yisrael Beiteinu chief’s hands. According to Babitsky, behind closed doors, Lieberman says “we need to play the card of ‘they’re beating on one of ours.' And this is what happened, he attacked Netanyahu, forced him to attack him in response, and all the Russians right away rallied around Lieberman.”

The manager of Likud’s campaign in the Russian-speaking community, Dmitri Gendelman, admits that “the story with the Yisrael Beiteinu activists may not look so good on social media,” but all in all it’s “a very positive story.” Babitski adds that Likud has stopped immediately responding to Lieberman’s attacks on Netanyahu. “We’ve have stopped attacking him and we are simply ignoring him,” he said.

But when almost every day Likud is writing posts and uploading videos against Lieberman on the party’s and Netanyahu’s pages in Russian, it might be hard to call this “ignoring him.”

The battle is online

With the election only a little more than a month away, it’s clear that the main battlefield is the internet. Likud may be holding an election rally at the end of the month for the Russian-speaking community in Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, with Netanyahu on hand – and before that he’s scheduled to visit Ukraine – but for now the internet is taking all the blows from both sides. Along with the posts from Netanyahu and Likud portraying Lieberman as a rank-and-file leftist, Yisrael Beiteinu makes sure to mention some of Netanyahu’s connections, mostly with ultra-Orthodox – Haredi – Knesset members.

This of course is no accident. According to Konstantinov, some 75 percent of Israel’s Russian-speakers describe themselves as secular. Lieberman might not be promising his voters drastic changes in matters of religion and state, for example civil marriage, but he’s still benefiting from his image as a secular freedom fighter.

“It’s enough for Lieberman to promise a government without Haredim, and he has already prevented the establishment of such a government,” Volfson said. “In other words, he has proved himself.”

The strategy is working for now. A reader poll by newsru.co.il – the most popular website for Russian-speakers in Israel – was released last week. It showed Lieberman’s support at 45 percent compared with 29.5 percent for Likud. These figures demonstrate what many in the Russian community are saying: Likud’s messages directed at them aren’t working, or at least they’re not very effective, and this doesn’t just apply to the issue of religion and state.

An example is Netanyahu’s photo with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a banner that hangs down Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv. It turns out that the Likud campaign sent out the picture to journalists the day after thousands of protesters were violently dispersed in Moscow and hundreds were arrested. The picture thus damaged Likud’s image.

“Likud isn’t really unique in its problem when conveying messages,” Volfson said. “I can’t think of a single party that has a deep, reasoned understanding about the way to approach the Russian street.”

Former Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks in the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 29, 2019.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Not a single party – but Yisrael Beiteinu. Lieberman and his advisers know how to identify the short circuit created sometimes between Netanyahu and his Russian-speaking voters – and to exploit it – even if they sometimes use dubious methods. This is what happened two weeks ago at the meeting, broadcast on TV, between Netanyahu and a group of new immigrants from Ukraine who had just landed in Israel.

It all began when Channel 9 journalist Sergey Grankin, who was on the flight – funded by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – mentioned during the broadcast that the plane landed in Israel late in order to fit Netanyahu’s schedule. Alexander Goldenstein, the former editor of the website IzRus, which stood out in its positive coverage of Lieberman, wrote on his Facebook page that “121 people, including dozens of children, spent the night at the airport so Netanyahu could be photographed with them for PR.” The post received dozens of shares.

The snowball began rolling from here – even though Grankin denied that the new immigrants waited at the airport, and even though he explained that the flight was already postponed and the olim weren’t inconvenienced. The fact that Goldenstein later updated his post didn’t stop Lieberman from using the story about a problem at the airport in a speech.

An Avigdor Lieberman Facebook post in Russian warning against an Halacha, or Jewish law, government.

“He held an entire plane with parents and children at the airport in Kiev so it would work out with his schedule and he could be photographed with them in Israel for election purposes,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman’s spokeswoman, Elina Bardach-Yalov, who is number 10 on the party’s Knesset slate for the September election, told Haaretz that the information on the flight’s delay came from Grankin’s report, and his denial came only after Lieberman’s speech. But actually Grankin clarified his comments before the speech.

Bardach-Yalov added that Grankin “changed his version four times,” which is not true. In any case, it seems that despite the denial nothing will help – the narrative of the exhausting wait inside the plane, which never happened, has been etched voters’ minds.

A new narrative

A different narrative is now being rewritten. Just before Lieberman joined the Netanyahu government in 2015, Bardach-Yalov (who had not yet officially joined Yisrael Beiteinu) and her colleague Goldenstein spread the story of the glass ceiling that was preventing the advancement of olim and the children of olim in the government, the legal system, the military and the police. They spread their narrative via a supposedly independent research institute, but the phrase “glass ceiling” became routine within Yisrael Beiteinu, and Lieberman took pride in breaking through this ceiling when he was appointed defense minister in 2016.

Now the battle is over who allowed the shattering of the glass ceiling. In an article by Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin in a Likud campaign leaflet in Russian, the phrase “glass ceiling” is mentioned twice and each time it is claimed that Netanyahu is the one who helped Russian-speakers break through it. Lieberman isn’t ignored in the leaflet, but he’s just another piece of evidence on Netanyahu’s greatness: He’s the one who appointed Lieberman director general of the Prime Minister’s Office and therefore is responsible for boosting Lieberman’s political career.

The nod is to the younger generation: Only by voting and becoming a Likud member can new immigrants advance their interests.

The other side is making its own gestures to younger voters, partly through videos making fun of Netanyahu that have gone viral. In one, Netanyahu can be seen talking excitedly while sitting over a glass of beer with Russian-speaking bloggers. But the voice isn’t Netanyahu’s – the video has a soundtrack from an old Soviet movie in which a famous actor is talking about particularly dangerous and hallucinatory cocktails.

In another video, Netanyahu is seen wearing Stalin’s uniform while consulting with Deputy Health Minister Yaakov and Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz on the Hamas threat. “What do you propose, comrades?” asks Netanyahu in a Georgian accent. “I propose surrendering,” answers Katz. The manager of the Yisrael Beiteinu campaign, Alex Gorodnitsky, denied any connection to these videos, but it’s not at all clear that he’s shocked when he watches them.