Background / Blackout of PM's Broadcast Boosts Likud Among Russians

The Russian-language media is portraying the decision by Judge Cheshin to stop the broadcast of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's press conference on Thursday as an attempt by the Left to discredit Sharon - just like the "Black PR" in the former USSR.

The decision by the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Justice Mishael Cheshin, to stop the broadcast of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's press conference on Thursday night for violating restrictions on campaign propaganda is expected to increase the Likud's support from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, bringing the party one or two more Knesset seats.

The judge's order to stop the broadcast, in which Sharon was supposed to respond to questions surrounding a $1.5 million loan his sons received from a South African family friend, elicited angry responses on Russian-language radio programs and other outlets, describing the action as a serious affront to the prime minister and everything he represents.

Some of the reactions included a comparison to how things work in Russia: "If some judge dared to cut off Putin..."

It seems that the blackout of Sharon's broadcast was the best thing to happen for the Likud in a while among Russian immigrants. During the past two months, support for the Likud has plummeted by 50 percent in this community. In November, following the resignation of the Labor Party ministers from the government, the Likud enjoyed the support of about 33 percent of these immigrants, but the party's popularity among these voters now stands at about 17 percent, or about six Knesset seats.

Alex Feldman, who surveys public opinion among the local Russian-speaking community, says that the aborted press conference is likely to return some of the disenchanted Likud voters to the fold. Other researchers also believe that 3-5 percent of these former Likud supporters will return and vote for the party.

Commentators familiar with the Russian immigrant community mainly attribute the drop in support for the Likud during recent weeks to the corruption allegations surrounding the Likud central committee's selection of the party's Knesset slate. The stories about Inbal Gavrieli and the casino turned off these voters.

A further erosion of support was triggered by the police interrogation of MK Naomi Blumenthal (and her subsequent firing by Sharon after she exercised her right to remain silent) regarding a suspected vote-buying scheme during the party's internal elections.

Blumenthal is a well-known figure in the Russian-speaking community, having served as the chairperson of the Knesset Absorption Committee and head of the Likud's campaign team for the Russian-speaking sector.

In recent surveys, the number of undecided voters from this community has risen. The Likud's loss has also brought gains to Natan Sharansky's Yisrael b'Aliyah party and the National Union, also headed by an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, Avigdor Lieberman. (The National Union's strong showing in the latest Ha'aretz/Dialogue poll - 11 seats - is partly thanks to Russian-speaking voters who turned away from the Likud.)

However, the recent revelations about Sharon's loan affair seem to have reversed this trend of slipping support for the Likud. This can be attributed in part to the Russian-language media, which has minimized the affair. Vesti, the newspaper with the highest circulation among Russian-language publications in Israel, reported the affair last Wednesday, but its main headline on Friday, when it has nearly eight times as many readers, was "Black PR" - a term used during the stages of democratization in Russia, when criminal elements tried to promote their representatives in the government by purchasing media outlets and using these to smear their opponents.

Under the "Black PR" title was a large subtitle stating that "Amram Mitzna declared, based on a distorted and misleading report, that Sharon is not a legitimate candidate." The "Black PR" article does not deal with the Sharon affair at all; it reviews the various precedents in Israeli politics in which politicians used the press to harm their opponents.

A similar approach characterizes other Russian-language media. During election coverage on the Israel Plus television channel, top reporters criticized the publication of the Sharon affair, explaining that journalists have enlisted in the Left's attempt to sabotage Sharon's reelection chances.

In a flood of telephone calls to the television studio, Russian speakers complained about the injustice Sharon has suffered at the hands of the media and the lack of compassion shown by journalists.