Likud Sells Latest Recruits to Russian-speakers

With the return of Benny Begin to Likud, the party's campaign managers for the Russian-speaking community assumed that his last name would work magic even among people not here when his father was prime minister. Menachem Begin earned his stripes with the Russian public for the year or so he spent in the Soviet gulag for his Zionist activities, before he came to pre-state Israel in 1942 and took command of the underground movement the Irgun.

This assumption proved only partly correct. Begin is indeed well-liked in the Russian-speaking community and media, but there are people who can be used with greater effect. The most outstanding of these is Likud's newest acquisition, Misha Smolensky, better known to veteran Israelis by the name Moshe Ya'alon.

The popularity of former chief of staff Ya'alon is not only due to his defense background, but because he hails from a kibbutz, comes from a Russian-speaking family and understands the language well. He's one of what Russian-speakers call "our people." His senior army rank and Russian background provide a winning combination. He is being marketed as a chief of staff who sprang from Russian-Israelis.

"He is definitely an asset for us. He is the message to Russian-speakers of what their children can become," a source in the campaign said. Of course, only if they vote Likud. It is still not clear whether Ya'alon knows Russian well enough to be interviewed in that language. And there will be plenty of interviews in the run-up to the election in February.

Another advantage might be his opposition to the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which most Russian-speakers opposed. Yet the campaign is treading softly on this issue so as not to be seen as attacking the idea's originator, Ariel Sharon. The community still favors the former prime minister. At the same time, Ya'alon's new book, "A Long Short Road," might be translated and distributed during the election campaign.

The Likud campaign is already counting heavily on Tal Brody, who will officially join Likud in a few days, as an important component in attracting Russian-speaking voters. Brody was captain of Maccabi Tel Aviv when it defeated the Moscow-based basketball team CSKA in 1978.

This victory was for Soviet Jews behind the Iron Curtain much more than a successful basketball game. Thirty years later, the Likud campaign plans to invoke his part in the victory to win the party more Russian votes.