Israel Election: The War in Ukraine Is Barely Mentioned in the Battle for Russian-speaking Voters

While immigrants from the former Soviet Union are closely following the war in Ukraine, the invasion has taken a back seat to other electoral issues. And yet, most parties are still hoping to capitalize on Finance Minister Lieberman's pro-Russian position

Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
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Giant banners of then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ahead of the 2019 Knesset election.
Giant banners of then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ahead of the 2019 Knesset election.Credit: NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

In late July, in the wake of Moscow's demand to halt the activities of the Jewish Agency in Russia and its condemnation of military strikes in Syria that have been attributed to Israel, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video on his Russian-language Facebook page in which he accused the current government of "amateurism, irresponsibility and arrogance" in its relations with Russia.

The video, which had a Russian voice-over and subtitles, provoked close to 900 comments, many more than is typical for Netanyahu's Russian Facebook page. Many were enthusiastically supportive, of course, but an equal number were furious and contemptuous. "Look who's talking, less than half a year into a war in Europe that his 'friend' launched," one woman wrote. "I wonder what you'd say if, after Ukraine, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would start liberating the Russians in Israel," a man said. A third asked, "Where did Iran get its nuclear technology? Russia raised a new fascism and a new Hitler."

The war in Ukraine evokes strong reactions from Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In a survey conducted in July by NEWSru Israel, one of Israel's biggest Russian-language news websites, 75 percent of respondents said they supported Ukraine, 12 percent said they supported Russia and 11 percent said they were neutral about the war. NEWSru Israel's polls are not based on a representative sample of Russian speakers in Israel. According to information on the site, men and people over 60 are over-represented in the surveys, compared to the general population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel. That said, the website's surveys over the years have reliably reflected the mood on Israel's "Russian street" and the changes it has undergone.

A worker stands near destroyed train cars at freight railway station, in Ukraine on Wednesday.Credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS

The latest poll definitely reflects the dominant mood among Russian speaking journalists, bloggers and commentators. Anatoly Vorobey, a veteran, well-known computer programmer and blogger, wrote in a response to the video that Netanyahu "lost me as a voter." In a conversation with Haaretz, Vorobey says, "I don't think everyone has to speak out against Russia. There is a preference for Israeli domestic issues, and I recognize this. Nor do I think that remarks on Ukraine should be the only measure of an Israeli politician." Vorobey, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1991, says he voted for Likud in a few elections, including ones in the past few years. "But in the specific case of Netanyahu, the way he maintained complete silence and the first thing he said on the subject was that we have to preserve relations with a large country like Russia – [that] crossed the line for me."

Historian Yigal Liverant, the right-leaning editor-in-chief of Shalem Press, was taken aback by the position staked out by the chair of the opposition. Liverant, who like Vorobey was born in Ukraine, says that although he voted for Likud for years, in the past six months he has turned his back on the party. "It sounds odd, but I simply cannot put [a Likud slip] in the ballot box." Liverant discusses Russia frequently on Facebook. "I don't think Bibi particularly likes or respects Putin. I believe [Netanyahu] sees full well the kind of incompetence he faces [in Putin]. But he apparently thinks that if he licks his feet, Israel will come out ahead. Putin, however, respects power more than flattery, so it seems to me that our bowing to him doesn't play in our favor."

The economy before the war

Expressions of sympathy for Russia and support for Putin may not win Israeli politicians points, but it seems that as the war in Ukraine drags on and Israel's November 1 election grows closer, the former's likely effect on the results of the latter is only diminishing. In NEWSru Israel's "Portrait of the Russian speaking voter" poll, conducted in late July, respondents were asked which issues will determine how they will vote. Nearly one-fourth, 23 percent, said a party's position on Russia's war in Ukraine would affect their decision. But 62 percent said the personality of a party leader would influence their choice and 52% said it was the party's economic platform – the same percentage who said a party's platform on security and defense issues would determine their decision at the ballot box.

Evgeny Finkel, the editor in chief of NEWSru Israel, notes that among poll respondents from Ukraine, 34 percent of respondents said a party's position on the war would be a significant factor in how they will vote – "but even for them it is not the decisive factor. Many other variables were higher on their list of priorities," he says. Finkel added that among members of the "Putin Aliyah," referring to people who immigrated to Israel during the past eight years, "about 30 percent saw the war as a significant factor." But a survey taken by the website after the September 15 deadline for parties to submit their candidate slates showed a sharp plunge in voters' interest in Israeli politicians' positions on the war. Only 12 percent of all respondents and 22 percent of respondents from Ukraine cited the issue as a significant factor in how they will cast their vote. Among those who immigrated to Israel after the Russian occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, 23 percent said a party's position on the issue will significantly affect their vote.

inance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu.Credit: Emil Salman

Emil Shleymovich, an editor of the Russian-language news website Detaly (which is owned by the Russian Israeli businessman Leonid Nevzlin, who also holds 20 percent of Haaretz shares), believes that the war in Ukraine is in fact likely to significantly affect the voting patterns of Russian-speaking Israelis. In his estimation, this will be reflected in a drop in support for Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman's party. "There is a clear retreat in support for Yisrael Beiteinu, which took a pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian position, despite trying to present it as neutral," says Shleymovich. He mentions, among other things, the finance minister's refusal to allocate funding to set up a field hospital in Ukraine (in the end it was funded by the Health Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office, together with foreign foundations) and his remark after the massacre in Bucha citing "mutual accusations" between Russia and Ukraine.

Some of the surveys support Shleymovich's assessment. Lieberman is seen as pro-Russian, after years of taking a position of neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In 2011, he said in a meeting with Putin, relying on descriptions of observers from his party, that the parliamentary elections in Russia were "fair, free and democratic." This, even though widespread evidence of fraud in those elections ignited the great wave of protest that ushered in a decade of confrontations between the Kremlin and the opposition. In 2014, Lieberman, then the foreign minister, refused to condemn Russia's occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. However, his position on the war in Ukraine does not seem to troubling many on the Russian street in Israel now, certainly not his traditional supporters.

David (Dudi) Hassid, the pollster of Kan public television, agrees with the results of the NEWSru Israel polls. "Russian speakers in Israel do tend to support Ukraine more than Russia, but they do not necessarily want the politicians who represent them to hold this opinion, certainly if it is not a prime minister." Hassid believes the Ukrainian issue is not likely to have a significant impact on the distribution of votes among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He attributes the drop in support for Lieberman to his rivalry with Netanyahu. "This community is more right-wing [than Israel's Jewish population overall], even if the difference is not dramatic. It has higher levels of sympathy for Netanyahu, who receives the support of 40-45 percent of all voters from the former Soviet Union, and this prevents them from supporting Lieberman now," Hassid says. He believes that the most important issue for Russian speakers, by a large margin, is the cost of living.

Freeze, you're it!

Besides the fatigue from the war and the separation that many make between foreign policy and Israeli domestic affairs, there is probably another reason for the muted effect the war in Ukraine is expected to have on the election. The three parties that are competing for most of the votes of Russian speakers – Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid – simply stopped mentioning it. "Everyone, including [Prime Minister Yair] Lapid, realizes that the electoral benefit from relating to the war is not unequivocal, so they prefer simply to be silent," a source in Likud told Haaretz. He said that none of the parties is emphasizing the Ukraine issue in its Russian-language campaign.

About six months ago Lapid, who at the time was foreign minister but not yet the prime minister, called the massacre in Bucha a war crime, while Lieberman said, "I support first of all Israeli interests." Since then, there has been no significant statement by party leaders on the issue. As soon as Lapid was sworn in as prime minister, the Jewish Agency crisis erupted, and after a harsh initial response in which he promised that "Closing the Jewish Agency offices would be a serious event that would affect relations" with Russia, Lapid took a vow of silence on this issue as well.

"Exploiting this war for an election campaign, as some parties are trying to do now, is a rather cynical act," says Olga Wolfson, the manager of Yesh Atid's Russian-language campaign, when asked why the issue has been completely absent from the party's campaign. Wolfson, the CEO and owner of ‎Partisan Marketing Communications, names the establishment of the field hospital, Lapid's remarks about the war and the establishment of a refugee aid hotline in the Social Services Ministry as among the outgoing government's concrete responses to the topic. Alex Gorodnitsky, the manager of Yisrael Beiteinu's Russian-language campaign, says: " The Ukrainian issue is so painful and important for everyone now that I am not ready to discuss it in this aspect. Many people are profiteering on this issue now and I can say that we will not profiteer on blood."

The lost Knesset seat

With or without the war, the contest for the votes of immigrants from the former Soviet Union has kicked into high gear. Thus, an article posted about two weeks ago on Yesh Atid's website in Russian argued that Likud had become a "Sephardi sectoral party" because its Knesset slate did not include candidates from the former Soviet Union (except for Yuli Edelstein, who fell to No. 18 on the list). Figures in Likud pounced on the racist tone, and tried to cause a stir. But the Russian street, physical and virtual, remained tranquil. Some media outlets didn't even bother to report on the incident, which was followed by the rushed removal of Yesh Atid's Russian-language site.

Likud is trying to overcome the lack of representation on its ticket. It is waging an aggressive campaign in Russian attacking Lieberman, and to a lesser extent Lapid, for "sitting with Arabs" in the governing coalition. A Likud source told Haaretz that according to a survey conducted for the party by the Rafi Smith Institute, "on the Russian street, two forces remained completely stable compared to the previous election –Yesh Atid and Likud. Yesh Atid has 18 percent of Russian speakers' votes, and Likud 28 percent, three and a half Knesset seats." The source says the poll shows a significant decline in support for Yisrael Beiteinu, however. "In the last election, 36 percent of Russian speakers voted for Lieberman's party, but in the latest survey that drops to 26 percent – a loss of more than one Knesset seat. Lieberman's base is worth 3.1 Knesset seats today. If the voters from the general population leave him now, he'll be caught up in a battle for survival because for the first time he doesn't have four guaranteed Knesset seats from the Russian street."

A Likud billboard in Russian, ahead of the 2019 Knesset election.Credit: Emil Salman

Gorodnitsky, the manager of Yisrael Beiteinu's Russian-language campaign, is doubtful. "If internal Likud polls had shown that Lieberman was losing Knesset seats, they would not have attacked him so aggressively," he says. "On the contrary, they see that Lieberman is getting stronger, and fear that he will be the last obstacle standing between Netanyahu and the prime minister's chair."

Assuming that Likud's internal poll reflects a real trend, the question is where the votes of Lieberman's lost Knesset will go. Likud acknowledges the disgust felt by some immigrants from the former Soviet Union for Netanyahu, who see him as a symbol of a regime that cannot be replaced. They are not fooling themselves, and recognize that some of the votes that went to Lieberman in the past will go to the National Unity Party of Benny Gantz, who is seen as "soft right." But they are trying to gather the rest from among Russian speakers who were disappointed with Lieberman for serving in a government with an Arab party. Likud's anti-Arab campaign in Russian is intended for them, and includes videos explaining that Lieberman has no options other than joining a coalition that includes an Arab party.

Viacheslav Konstantinov, a statistician who monitors political, social and economic developments in Israel's Russian-speaking community, published in April an analysis based on data from surveys conducted among this population after Israel's general elections from 1992 to 2021. The polls, which were carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute and by NEWSru Israel, point to a decline in support for Yisrael Beiteinu over this period, certainly when compared to the party's dizzying success in the 2009 election. Even in the 2021 election, there was a certain decrease in support for the party among Russian speakers from the elections in 2019 and 2020. At the same time, the polls show that Yesh Atid has won the hearts of many Russian speakers, ever since the party's first election, in 2013.

Konstantinov's analysis shows that the demographic and socioeconomic changes among Russian speakers do not work in Yisrael Beiteinu's favor. "The immigrants who voted in the last elections for centrist and left-wing parties were significantly younger in comparison to the entire population of immigrants," Konstantinov writes. He adds that even among immigrants who voted for parties to the right of Likud, the proportion of young and educated people is relatively high. In his estimation, the sectoral support of the younger generations for Yisrael Beiteinu is expected to dwindle as they integrate more fully into Israeli society. At the same time, the support of Russian-speaking young people for parties on both sides of the political map will increase accordingly.

Yisrael Beiteinu's anti-religious platform won votes from Russian-speaking young people in the past few elections, Konstantinov judges. But in the run-up to the 2021 election, some new supporters were disappointed. Now Lieberman is conducting a rearguard battle among Russian speakers. Yisrael Beiteinu was the first party to expand its campaign in Russian not only to social media but also to ads and sponsored content. Lieberman attacks Netanyahu personally, jumping on him for the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox and boasts of his wins for the Russian-speaking community. year. On his Facebook page and in an advertisement on the Vesty Russian news website, Lieberman took credited for delaying the deportation of Liza Kozmina, a teenager, to Ukraine. In the meantime, the results are questionable: The most recent nationwide polls give the finance minister's party five to six Knesset seats, compared to seven in the current Knesset. More than a month remains to until it becomes clear whether he was able to return the lost votes to the fold.

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