Seeing Red

It will not be easy for Amir Peretz to win the support of Russian-speakers. His ethnic origin plays against him, his education arouses scorn and his socialist ideas don't gain him any points.

It is said that without the support of the Russian-speakers it is impossible to be prime minister of Israel, or even become a large party. It is a fact that Amir Peretz currently has nearly zero support among the immigrant public. The interim conclusion is that the party that wants to become a ruling alternative will not be able to do this without fundamentally changing the Russian-speakers' attitude toward it and its chairman.

Labor Party chairman MK Amir Peretz knows this very well: He devoted many minutes of his victory speech to the need to open the party to the Russian-speakers and integrate them into it. Obvious? Not at all. During the course of the race for the last Knesset, in answer to the question of why the party was neglecting the Russian-speakers, one of its senior figures explained to Haaretz that "Labor has a complex regarding the Mizrahim [Jews originating in the Muslim countries]. It isn't going to calm down until 'Masouda from Sderot' votes for it. Masouda hasn't voted for us and her grandchildren aren't going to vote for us, but until they do the party does not dare court the Russians."

Peretz immediately took a different approach: not "either or" but rather "both." He speaks in class terms about interests shared by the weaker strata of the "veterans," i.e. the Mizrahim and the immigrants. After years of "divide and rule" between the sectors, he is coming with a message of a common fate, in the context of which he intends to unite these two populations that are hostile to each other - because of prejudices, because of competition for jobs and social advancement and because of the disappointment of the expectations of the immigrants who came here looking for Europe and found themselves in the Levant. At the memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin last week, a immigrant labor activist was wandering around. "The Russians aren't in fashion any more," he grumbled. "Now the Mizrahim are in fashion."

The good news for Labor is that Peretz's election has brought it back into the public discourse of the Russian-speaking community. All the Russian-language media is talking about the revolution in the leadership of the party and they are interviewing Peretz, his supporters and his political rivals. Peretz is also the main topic in private discussions. The bad news is the nature of this discourse: scornful, arrogant and racist. In the Russian newspapers, since his election he has been called an ousaty, "the one with the mustache."

In one of the many discussions this past week, there was serious consideration of the question of "whether Peretz is blacker or redder." Opinions were split. Others said the attack on "the Red" was a substitute for an attack on "the Black," which is perceived as not politically correct. Often the two motifs blend into one. Under the headline "Ode to Joy," taken from the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Russian-language newspaper Globus published a kind of long satire in rhyme that would not have embarrassed a particularly anti-Semitic publication. It refers to Peretz, freely translated from Russian slang, as "a Sderot alley cat," from "Netivot garbage dumps," "a leader who has won power in a backgammon game" and "a demon who has leaped into power from a bottle of arak."

Education flawsA more refined article in the leading newspaper Vesty assesses that Peretz's not particularly rich biography and the flaws in the education of the Labor leader "will push our more intelligent voters out of the Labor Party." The writer does think Peretz has a chance of winning immigrants' votes if he has the sense to build something new, but in the same breath he casts doubt on his ability to do so. "In order to rebuild something it is necessary to be familiar with computerized drafting or graphics," argues the writer. "But with his 12 years of education, I doubt Peretz is knowledgeable about these complex things."

"It's not so much racism as snobbery," is the analysis of Dr. Eliezer Feldman, a researcher of public opinion in the Russian-speaking sector from the Mutagim Institute. As someone who himself arrived in Israel in the immigration wave of the 1990s, he does not find the reactions surprising. "I'm also hearing such reactions on the Russian-speaking left; it comes from a sense of superiority," he says. "The Russian-speakers see themselves as having come from a great European civilization, whereas the Moroccans are primitives who came from Africa. Therefore, I'm hearing statements about Peretz - 'I'm not a racist, but he is repulsive.' Or, 'What do you want − a Moroccan, not even an Iraqi? How can I vote for a party like that?'"

In one of the victory pictures, Peretz is seen sipping from a bottle of Russian sparkling wine, the label of which ?(in Russian?) is clearly visible. The scornful reactions to the "Soviet Champagne" on the Internet sites in Russian were not long in coming. "If it were [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon or Bibi [Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu] drinking Russian Champagne, it would have been accepted enthusiastically," says Feldman. "With Peretz, it is suspected as a cheap trick that reinforces his image as someone who is linked to the roots of Soviet communism." In one of the cartoons in the Russian newspapers this week, Peretz is seen against the backdrop of red flag adorned with the hammer and sickle. Presumably, "Red Peretz," an image that is reinforced by the Stalin-style mustache, will be a key motif in the countercampaign.

Exactly one month ago Feldman conducted a survey among the immigrant public. The question was: "For which of the following people would you cast your vote for prime minister if the elections were held today?" Ariel Sharon received 40 percent, Avigdor Lieberman 18 percent, Benjamin Netanyahu 11 percent and Amir Peretz only about 0.5 percent. Shimon Peres, incidentally, the most popular of the senior Labor figures among the immigrants, rose from 3 percent in the last survey in June to almost 5 percent, an increase that is explained by his support for Sharon.

Complex pictureA new survey Feldman conducted this week, after Peretz's election, shows a more complex picture: 83 percent of the respondents responded to his election negatively or indifferently; 55 percent agree with his views as read to them but do not have faith in his ability to implement them and about 8 percent replied in the survey that his victory had increased their desire to support the Labor Party. This is an increase of 3 percent in Labor supporters as compared to the October survey.

Feldman hedges the finding: "I admit there is a problem in the structure of the survey. The question was asked immediately after we had presented his views to the respondents − raising the minimum wage, ensured pensions and social reforms. In fact, we created a simulation in which his views on the peace process were not included. The truth is that this is going to be a very interesting experiment. Now it will be possible to see whether Russian-speakers are prepared to live with an Arab minister in the government and Peretz's continuation of the Oslo process, in return for a raise in the minimum wage to $1,000 [per month] and ensured pensions."

Feldman thinks this is possible. "As someone who knows the Russian street well, I'm telling you [Peretz] is offering a good price," he says. "For a family that has just retired and become poor it doesn't matter that he is a Moroccan with a mustache. The fact that he defeated Peres also signals to the immigrants that he is powerful. Maybe he does have a chance."Even before he finds the time to study Russian as he promised on Yair Lapid's television show this week ?(an interview that aroused slight scorn among the immigrants?), Peretz will have to deal with the Russian revolution in his party. This is the situation: Peretz at the head of the small One Nation faction registered about 3,000 Russian-speakers in the party membership drive. The big Labor Party signed up about 3,500. The Labor Party has a new immigrants organization that has been operating for about a year, headed by Nada Chizoi, formerly the head of the Chernobyl Victims Association. Peretz has an immigrants organization called Yadar ?(Hebrew acronym for Russian-speaking Israelis?), which has been active for five years and is headed by 39-year-old Leon Litinsky, an Electric Corporation employee who also serves as Peretz's spokesman in the Russian media.

Litinsky, who has worked closely with Peretz for seven years now, has a great many stories about "the boss." His favorite is the one about the ironing woman. Not long ago, Litinsky accompanied Peretz on a visit to the chairman of the labor unions in Russia. For some VIP meeting, Peretz needed perfectly pressed pants. They found a woman who does ironing at the hotel and left the trousers with her. After a while they realized they were late and that she was taking a long time. Peretz took the trousers, apologized, pressed them himself and paid her the full fee. On the way out of the hotel he also ran to give her a bouquet of flowers that had been bestowed upon him by his Russian colleagues back at the airport. "He thought she had been hurt by him taking her work away from her," says Litinsky.

Different worldHe tells this story to describe the man. It is doubtful it has much effect at this stage. The immigrants hate the Histadrut labor federation, not only because of the Soviet connotations but also because they believe the strikes Peretz initiated hurt not only the economy but also them personally. It will take a lot more than the tale of the woman who does the ironing to repair his image. Litinsky is convinced this is possible. He is the message. His own history as someone who immigrated to Israel 15 years ago with almost a medical degree is the collective history of the immigrants. "Before I received an excellent job at the Electric Corporation, I followed the usual track: manpower companies, waiting on tables. I swept streets alongside [former Yisrael B'Aliyah MK] Gennady Riger. I couldn't understand why there were always problems with my pay slip, with the overtime and how all the mistakes were always in the employer's favor."

When he came to the Electric Corp., Lintinsky discovered a different world of employment, where a proper welfare state functioned and where workers had rights. "When I manage to get to the immigrants and talk to them, they are entirely convinced," he says, "and they are even more convinced when they meet Amir personally. It breaks all the stigmas. He gets into their veins like the Likud. With the ethnic issue, nothing needs to be done. It is true everyone is talking about it, but we don't need to react in words, but rather show them a personal example."So far the only article sympathetic to Peretz in the Russian media, which also appeared in Vesty, criticized "the xenophobia that does not do honor to the Russian-speakers" and ended with a sentence it attributes to Lenin: "There is no need to fear the man with the mustache." In the meantime, however, "the man with the mustache" has good reason to be very concerned.