A Likud Bus on the Russian Street

In joining the Likud, Yisrael b'Aliyah proved that the status of new immigrant is a temporary condition - and Sharon is pleased as well.

On the morning of election day, three minibuses stood at the entrance to a housing complex for new immigrants in Ashdod - one from Yisrael b'Aliyah, one from National Union - Avigdor Lieberman's party - and one from Likud. All of them were waiting to take tenants to the polling stations before it started to rain or before someone else abducted them.

The housing complex, which is intended for immigrants who are elderly and alone, was inaugurated about two and a half months ago by Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky and Deputy Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein. It is exactly the kind of place that should have brought a fine electoral payoff based on gratitude. But the immigrants who came down to the street that day looked at the three buses and the campaign posters stuck on them, bypassed those of Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman and insisted on riding in the Likud bus.

"They didn't even want to ride with us," said a senior member of Yisrael b'Aliyah, in sadness mixed with anger. The immigrants had heard that "The people want Sharon," and they want to be an integral part of the nation. This week, all of Yisrael b'Aliyah boarded the Likud bus and amalgamated with it. What happened at the housing complex, which reached the ears of the party's top people, was one of the things that made them realize that the story of the only sectarian political party, as they had marketed themselves during this election campaign, had come to its natural end.

When Yisrael b'Aliyah was established seven years ago, there were those who called it "the Russian Shas." Party chairman Natan Sharansky did not like this sobriquet at the time and declared his intention of setting up a party for the general Israeli population. Before last week's elections, it was in fact people inside Yisrael b'Aliyah who spoke of the party as the Russian Shas and stressed, for electoral reasons, its sectarian aspect.

Both were wrong. Shas arose on the basis of feelings of oppression and ethnic discrimination, real or imagined. But while feelings of oppression are a relative thing, which can be perpetuated and reinforced, the situation of "immigration" is ephemeral. Even if there is no precise definition of when an immigrant stops being an immigrant, immigration, as opposed to a feeling of oppression, is a transitional period that ends in a natural way. It cannot be prolonged artificially. So the Yisrael b'Aliyah election campaign - which tried to strangle the Russian-speaking community in a noose of separatism and create the impression that only one party cares about them - failed.

Moreover, Shas has a spiritual leader, whereas the leadership of Yisrael b'Aliyah is functional and intended primarily to answer the unique needs of a large community. But these needs gradually lost their uniqueness. The party that burst onto the political arena in 1996 with seven Knesset seats declined in 1999 to six seats and expected four in the 2003 elections. In fact it won only two.

Broken romance

The past two years, so difficult with respect to security as well as economically and socially, accelerated this process. The security distress is the same for all sectors; the economic distress, which has afflicted the entire society, knocked out the uniqueness of the immigrants' problems. Avigdor Lieberman, who set up National Union with religious elements and Jewish settlers from the territories, expressed a change that had taken place among speakers of Russian; the same applies to Roman Bronfman, who took his Democratic Choice party and joined Meretz.

Many of the Yisrael b'Aliyah field workers felt the change in the public they represent mainly in the municipal arena. They were the first to realize that "the field" had slipped though their fingers and reported their diagnosis to the top people in the party. "The whole time I was shouting that this was going to happen, and no one listened to me," related Aleksander Rubny after the elections. Rubny, deputy mayor of Or Akiva, immigrated to Israel 12 years ago. "Maybe because by profession I'm a surveying engineer, I knew how to take measurements in this case too. The outcome was clear to me in advance, but our generals did not want to hear about it."

Indeed, among the party leaders, the prevailing assumption was that there was still an electorate for one more round of elections, before a decision had to be made about the future of the party. To a large extent they relied on their foothold in "the Russian street" through the 30 deputy mayors and the 100 local council members who represent the party. But it turned out that this evaluation was mistaken. More than half the registered voters in Or Akiva are Russian speakers, but in the last elections Yisrael b'Aliyah received only 7.4 percent of the votes of the immigrants who live in the city, less than the number of immigrant votes that went to Shinui. The vast majority of the immigrants voted for the Likud. "Russian romanticism is over in politics," says Rubny. "It's time to go home, to the Likud."

Not everyone felt the way he did. Rita Rinstein, a member of the Lod city council representing Yisrael b'Aliyah, believed otherwise up until the last minute. Even though in Lod, where half the voters are immigrants, her party won only 4.4 percent of the vote, Rinstein thought that Yisrael b'Aliyah still had an independent future. "Ever since the elections, people have been coming on pilgrimage to my office and crying," she related this week. "They feel as though they have lost their mother and father."

The possibility that she would find herself amalgamating with the Likud in Lod seemed unlikely to her. "I can't see myself in the local Likud branch," she said. "I was there during the 2001 elections, when we worked for Sharon. They were yelling there and arguing all the time. I couldn't bear it there for even half an hour. I don't at all think that the Russian street is finished."

The political sensibilities of a hardened group of immigrants in Lod who were playing telephone dominoes, a version of the familiar game, around a table in the commercial center contradicted Rinstein's feeling. After 11 years in Israel, all of them had voted for Sharon. "Only Likud," they declared. "I'm a Likudnik till the day I die," declared Miravi, an unemployed economist, as if he had grown up in the local Likud clubhouse.

Only Leonid, who came here from Belarus three years ago and is employed as a guard at the commercial center, said that Sharansky is very good. But he too is on the implicit cusp between a sectarian vote and an Israeli vote. "I want Sharon's strength and Sharansky's mind," he declared. "If Sharansky is going with the Likud, then I'm also going with the Likud. That's the best."

Two days after this conversation, Leonid's vision was fulfilled. Now Sharon and Sharansky are together, a natural conjunction that suits the needs of both parties. With the dissolution of the Russian political sector, Yisrael b'Aliyah has been left without voters - and also without money. The debts that had accumulated from the 1998 municipal elections grew when Roman Bronfman resigned from Yisrael b'Aliyah in 2001, taking his share of the funding with him. They turned into an avalanche after the last elections. In Yisrael b'Aliyah they very quickly realized that they had neither an electoral nor a budgetary option. For a few more days they toyed with the idea of remaining in the opposition as a protest party, agitating the immigrant public from the back benches, but realpolitik won out. "The failure in these elections has contributed more to Sharansky's political maturation than his seven years as head of the party and in the government," said someone who is very close to the Yisrael b'Aliyah chairman this week.

From the Likud's perspective, this is also a good deal, even if an expensive one - after it promised to cover the budgetary deficit that Yisrael b'Aliyah has run up. The investment is worth every agora. The last thing Sharon needs is a bunch of "white panthers" to stir up the immigrants' passions when they feel how the new budget is affecting them, or explain to the Russian-language press the dangers to the future of the nation that are inherent in the road map Sharon is adopting. Even if there is no longer a "Russian sector" in the political sense, there are still 1 million people whom Sharon would rather have at his side.

The right move

To a large extent it was Lieberman who paved Sharansky's way to the bosom of the Likud. Although the largest party does have its own immigrants' representative in the new Knesset, Michael Gorlovsky (number 27 on the Likud list) is above all Lieberman's candidate. This total identification with a person Sharon doesn't want in his government has made senior Likud people lose sleep. Sharansky in the government and Yuli Edelstein and Marina Solodkin in the Knesset representing the Likud are definitely a counterweight to someone they see as a Trojan horse.

The amalgamation of Yisrael b'Aliyah with the Likud is the right political move, one that could provide real answers to the needs of the Russian-speaking community. Their limited electoral support for National Union (about four and a half Knesset seats), nearly identical to the extent of their support for Shinui, and the more than seven Knesset seats they gave Likud - show that with respect to its positions this public is in the center and right of center. So is Yisrael b'Aliyah. And in their new position, the representatives of the immigrants' party in the Knesset and the government will be able to express both the political positions of the majority of Russian-speakers and their specific community interests.

This will happen if they get over their anger at the voters who disappointed them, a mood that prevailed during the past week. It is natural for voters to be angry at politicians who don't keep their election promises; and in Yisrael b'Aliyah they have been angry lately at voters who did not keep their promise to vote for them. The Russian-language press, which has a symbiotic relationship with Russian politics, has hastened to react. At the editorial desks they have already begun to prepare a series of articles on "vote and punishment," which will "present a chilling perspective on what is going to happen now in the Russian street." Perhaps the series will be spiked now that Yisrael b'Aliyah has joined the Likud.