The Left Just Can't Get It Together for Russian-speakers

For four years Sophia Mezricher, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1990, has had a small job with Meretz. Every week she replies to Russian immigrants who write to the party in a special corner of the newspaper Novosty. It's a small part of the paper, but an important one in terms of the immigrants' complicated relationships with the establishment and the Israeli left in particular.

Mezricher, a 70-year-old pensioner, recently received a letter from Meretz saying the party could no longer pay her expenses, mainly telephone calls, which it used to refund.

A second letter, from the director-general of the new social-democrat movement Yahad, said the movement could no longer pay for her bus pass - NIS 150 a month - on which she traveled from her protected tenancy apartment in Petah Tikva to the party's office in Tel Aviv. If Mezricher wants to preserve the left-wing party's contacts with the Russian-speaking public, she must do so at her own expense.

As a former geriatric specialist and assistant to the mayor of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine's third largest city (1.2 million inhabitants), Mezricher is used to volunteer work. But she believes her party is making a historic mistake with the immigrants. She wrote this in a letter to Yahad Chairman Yossi Beilin, but meanwhile she remained in her office, because she still had six letters to answer.

Mezricher's story is not unusual in an economy in which many lose their jobs. It is simply exceptionally stupid for a leftist party that has almost no foothold among more than one million Russian speakers.

"There's nothing we can do, the party has no money," says Beilin's adviser Uri Zaki. "We don't even have a budget to operate branches in Haifa and Jerusalem. The party must make deep cuts in everything not critical to the party's existence." Yet contact with more than one million people should surely be considered vital to any party that wishes to live.

Yet even now, when there are voices announcing the revival among the left after the Likud referendum defeating the disengagement plan, no effort is being made to approach the Russian-speaking public - 20 percent of the citizens of Israel.

"The Israeli left acts as though it has totally given up on this public," says a Russian speaking political activist. "I just don't know if it's from stupidity or despair."

The readers of Russian-language papers noticed on Sunday that the only ones offering greetings in the press to the immigrants on Victory in Europe day, their most important holiday, were Likud leaders who published large notices of congratulations.

Not a single representative of the left bothered to address them on this holiday, although May 9 was given official recognition by the Knesset during Ehud Barak's term as prime minister.

Likud chairman Ariel Sharon understood the significance of creating an affiliation with the Russian-speaking public. So, even after he lost in the referendum, he asked for the telephone numbers of the Russian speaking activists who worked for him and called to thank them.

This is not unusual. Since the last elections, Sharon has not stopped showering the new immigrants in his party with money and attention. He allocated funds to producing a Likud newspaper in Russian and maintains personal relations with the Russian-speaking activists.

Although his acts have a clear political interest, they also have a personal effect on the public. Though the entire political leadership of the Russian community, headed by Minister Natan Sharansky, objected to the disengagement, Sharon's loss in this sector was lower than among the total Likud membership.

In a poll conducted after the referendum by Dr. Alex Feldman of Mutagim institute, some 60 percent of the Russian speakers still support Sharon.

In a mid-April poll, 28 percent still saw Sharon as the preferred candidate for prime minister in the future. Benjamin Netanyahu got only 2 percent more. "Sharon and Netanyahu are the only two with leadership potential in the Russian street," says Feldman. The left does not exist in these polls.