Elections 2009 / Harsh Tone of Election Campaign Due to Desire to Please Russian Speakers

Assumption that 'the Russians like force' has dragged 2009 campaign into unprecedented levels of verbal aggression.

Two significant events have combined to shape the 2009 election campaign: This is the 20th anniversary of the start of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, and the 10th anniversary of Yisrael Beiteinu's establishment. And hence, it is also the year in which the entire campaign underwent a process of "Russification" that will not only affect the outcome of the vote, but has already affected its tone.

The success that the polls are predicting for Avigdor Lieberman's party is the electoral reflection of this process. But even more significant is the impact that 1.25 million Russian speakers have had on the aggression level of the campaign rhetoric. If Lieberman's campaign advertisements say he "understands Arabic," other candidates have tried to signal that they understand Russian.

Clearly, the recent war and Hamas' rocket launches also contributed to the belligerent tone. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the desire to please the Russian speakers also dragged this campaign into unprecedented levels of verbal aggression. The working assumption, in every party, is that "the Russians like force," so party leaders are trying to satisfy this desire.

Thus Ephraim Sneh, head of the Strong Israel party, has demanded the death penalty for serious crimes. Labor's Ehud Barak, echoing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has promised to assassinate terrorists while they are on the toilet and heaped scorn on Lieberman for never having actually shot anyone. Even Kadima's Tzipi Livni sounded much more aggressive when addressing Russian immigrants, repeatedly promising to "act forcefully."

However, these efforts have had limited success. At Kadima's immigrant rally, the elderly Semion Gorbich heaped praise on Livni. But when asked if he would vote for her, he responded: "What do you mean - Livni? I'm with Lieberman." That scene epitomizes the entire campaign among Russian immigrants: You could easily substitute the name of any other party leader for that of Livni.

In 2009, however, the Russian speakers have become the general population. In previous years, parties would essentially run two different campaigns in two different languages. This time, the "Russian" campaign is shaping the general one.

Even Russian speakers who support Lieberman do not do so because he is "Russian"; they support him because he is Lieberman. The motive of voting for one of their own has virtually disappeared. Hence the most important promise Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu made at his party's immigrant rally was not to protect immigrants' pensions, but to give Lieberman a senior position in his cabinet.

To be safe, all the parties have also reserved slots for Russian speakers on their slates. The immigrants may not vote for a party because of its Russian representatives, but they do tend to punish parties that neglect to make this gesture. MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) managed to turn Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's failure to make her a minister into a communal insult. Livni learned the lesson, and has already promised Solodkin a seat in her cabinet.

It is hard to know exactly how the Russian-speaking vote - which is worth 20 Knesset seats - will divide. Polls show Likud getting 3.5 seats from this community, Kadima just over 2 and Labor 1.5. Lieberman could easily win 10. And three are still undecided.

But regardless of the outcome, this campaign has already provided one answer to the question of how mass immigration from the former Soviet Union has affected Israel.