Knesset Seats Seek a Russian-speaking Home

Sasha Klein has a endless reservoir of stories. One of them is about a group of Israeli Russian-speaking children, who were asked to recall the folk tales they knew. One of the famous tales was of an impoverished and elderly couple in Russia who were barely able to scrape together a few grains of wheat from the attic to bake a kolobok [a round bread], which disappeared from the window and rolled far away, before returning to its owners. One child actually knew the story, but when he finished describing the process of scraping the wheat, he said that the grandmother baked a pita from it. Also round, but not quite the same thing.

Klein, who began working this week as Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign strategist for the Russian sector, is not just telling stories. This story also has a message. It is meant to explain where young immigrants stand on the Russian-Israeli axis. About 200,000 first-time voters have grown up in Israel, but their roots lie in Russia. "The one who figures out how to decipher the mystery of the youth will crack the secret of the elections in the Russian street," Klein says.

This is especially important now, as 9-10 Knesset seats of Russian speakers who followed Ariel Sharon to Kadima have become liquid and highly sought after in the elections marketplace. The assessment is that some of them will go to Avigdor Lieberman and some to the Likud. Up until two weeks ago, the Likud had a "Russian" constituency amounting to just one and a half Knesset seats; Klein believes that it is possible to reach eight. Against this background, Kadima is also urgently looking for three more Russian-speaking candidates to add to its list, in addition to MKs Marina Solodkin and Michael Nudelman.

In a conversation with Klein, he reveals his campaign strategy for the first time, along with several surprises. Did you think you already knew everything you wanted to know about Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein? You were mistaken. Here they appear in an improved 2006 version - as teen idols. Does this surprise you? Does it seem impossible to you? Klein disagrees. Judging by an analysis of the Russian sector, and based on meetings he held with young immigrants, Klein has reached the conclusion that the only thing that needs to be done is to "freshen up their image." Klein suggests imparting a myth to young people who are not familiar with Sharansky and Edelstein's biographies.

The intention is to build a unifying myth around the politicians for the young immigrants whose voting patterns are not clear and who, unlike their native-born peers, were not raised on Israeli myths. The gulag, the underground, the KGB - all of this is definitely the stuff from which myth is forged. A direct line will link the ideology that sent Sharansky and Edelstein to the Soviet prison to that which caused them to quit the government due to their opposition to the disengagement. Even Edelstein's father, who became a Pravoslav priest in Russia at the same time that his son became a fervently observant Jew, is mentioned in the reconstruction of this myth. After all, young people enjoy paradoxes of this kind. But this is not all: Sharansky and Edelstein will now not only be a myth, but also two technocrats with high-tech and organizational sex appeal. Just the type that young immigrants like.

The infrastructure that prepared the Likud list for the Knesset also makes things easier for Klein. The fact that Sharansky and Edelstein were selected for realistic places on the list, without Sharon reserving special slots for them, is in itself an electoral asset. The party demonstrated an attitude of respect toward its Russian speakers, and "respect" is the central axis of this election campaign in appealing to Russian speakers. Most of them already have an apartment and a job. What is lacking is a place of respect in society. Lieberman discusses this and now the Likud does, as well.

"The Kahlons gave respect to Sharansky and Edelstein," Klein says. "I can take the respect accorded to them and reflect it onto self-respect for immigrants in general."

But his greatest asset, Klein believes, is Netanyahu himself. Yes, the same Netanyahu whose economic policy hurt the Russian-speaking public more than the public at large. According to the latest polls, he is not entirely wrong. Judging by a survey of immigrants conducted last week by Dr. Alex Feldman of the Mutagim Institute, Netanyahu already leads with over 17% as to whom they would like to see as prime minister. Three weeks ago, Sharon led with nearly 49%.

"I told Bibi that I don't understand how his economic policy was not accompanied by a 'mini campaign' explaining to everyone what it would give him in the future," Klein said.

Now he is out to correct this distortion. Next to every single mother who suffered because of Netanyahu's economic decrees, he will present a son who will soon reap from the benefits of the economic policy. The key word in the campaign will be "security," or "a secure future" - a secure peace, personal security and economic security.

"Russians are pragmatic people," Klein declares. "I'll cause them to think, and not to be dragged by their emotions toward Kadima and Lieberman. Of all the 'isms' that have become distasteful, only materialism remains."

'Mr. Beilin, why don't you like Jews?'

Yossi Beilin meets with immigrants in Bat Yam. The image of Russian speakers, as a solid right-wing bloc (which was never true), has now become even more complex. On Sunday, about 150 Russian speakers, mostly elderly, gathered in an auditorium in Bat Yam to watch a debate between Avigdor Lieberman and Yossi Beilin, who came to represent the Geneva Initiative. It was more interesting to observe the reactions of the audience than the speakers themselves. It is no secret that they liked Lieberman here; the surprise is that they really listened to Beilin. They even applauded him occasionally.

Three years ago, they were still calling in Russian "to wipe your ass with the Geneva Initiative." Today the situation is completely different. The years of intifada and disengagement have made an impact. Maya Gluzman came to the debate mainly to practice her Hebrew via the simultaneous translation the organizers provided, but whether she intended to or not, she also paid attention to what was said. Both Lieberman's program and Beilin's initiative were new to her. Victor, a government ministry employee, who considered voting for Sharon and returned to Lieberman, was also interested in listening to Beilin.

If Lieberman is at his best when surrounded by a friendly audience, Beilin is at his best when they are enraged by him. This happened a number of times in Bat Yam, mainly during the question-and-answer stage. "Mr. Beilin, why don't you like Jews?" the voice of an elderly Russian immigrant wondered aloud. Beilin responded with a fiery speech about the real character of a Jewish state, based on Jewish values and Jewish ethics.

'They simply don't want us in this party'

On Monday, about an hour before the ballot boxes closed in the internal elections in Meretz, Grisha Birnbaum sat next to his small stand at the Israel Trade Fairs & Convention Center in Tel Aviv. Birnbaum, the chairman of the party's branch in Petah Tikva since 2004, tried this time to compete for a spot on the Knesset list. He sat alone, not stirring any interest. As a chess master in the former Soviet Union, he should have been able to calculate his moves and realize that he had no chance.

Dr. Alla Shainskaya, number 13 on the Knesset Senate slate, is a top scientist at the Weizmann Institute, who linked her fate to the Israeli left since immigrating to Israel in 1991. For years, she has served as "decoration" for Meretz when it wanted to show that "there is also a Russian left" and has been invited to speak at demonstrations. Shainskaya was personally invited by Beilin to compete, took a vacation from the Weizmann Institute and conducted an aggressive campaign. She is also the only one who can present a current document bearing the signatures, one after the other, of Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni, who wrote a letter of support for her. But even this historic document did not help, nor did the accordion player and violinist she brought to the convention center pavilion to play Russian tunes.

"There's a saying in Russian that goes: 'If we need to die, then let it be with music,'" she still joked late into the night. At 1 A.M., after the votes were counted, putting her in the 13th slot on the list, she already declared: "They simply don't want us in this party."

Sasha Etterman, a journalist, analyst, political activist and friend of Shainskaya's, said this much earlier, and much more bitterly. About a half hour before the balloting closed in Meretz, he had already forecast the anticipated failure.

"The left is much more racist toward the Russians than the right," he said defiantly. "It is not interested in anything but itself. They simply don't want the olim [new immigrants]. It is better for the left without them. They can't even bring themselves to functionally consider the importance of the Russian vote."

What a missed opportunity. Precisely during a period of such profound change in the views of Russian speakers, Meretz will be the only non-Arab party going into the elections without Russian-speaking representation. In an election campaign in which "respect" for the Russian-speaking sector will play a key role, this is big blow.

In the midst of the primaries in the Labor Party, while running between party branches, candidate Leonid Litinetsky found time to eat lunch at a Russian restaurant in Bat Yam. Between bites, he received a phone call from the Russian-language radio station Reka. Litinetsky, who was ultimately elected to 21st place, a slot reserved for "immigrants," was asked to explain to listeners "why the Russians in the Labor Party are positioned in an unrealistic spot."

Litinetsky is an employee of the Israeli Electric Corporation and a very close associate of Amir Peretz's. He is likely to become the first one to reach the Knesset via the Histadrut rather than through "Russian" politics. In the interview, he explained that his place in the Labor list is completely realistic and he was effusive in praising the system that brought him to this point - via the votes of tens of thousands of party members, rather than the 2,000 members of the [Likud] central committee that chose Sharansky and Edelstein, without reserving a slot for immigrants.

Litinetsky's supporters were deployed at the entrance to every party branch. At the entrance to the branch in Holon, Svetlana Ravivi was there to represent him. One of her tasks was to remind veteran Israelis of the importance of marking the name of a representative of the immigrants. Everyone promised to do so. At the entrance to the Rishon Letzion branch, a complete team operated on behalf of Litinetsky.

"This is how the Labor Party relates to people," grumbled Elinor Weintraub, director of One Nation's forum of Russian-speaking Israelis. "What is 12th place? I believe the Labor Party can even win 28 seats if it learns how to speak with the immigrants. We of all people, who came from a great empire that collapsed, realize that what is important is not the land, but the person."

Her colleague Yalena Neiman agrees with her. "Labor is a part of workers and most of us Russians are workers," she explains.

But when she presents Peretz's doctrine to her Russian-speaking co-workers at a jewelry factory, they simply laugh.

"They don't believe him," she says sadly. Leading up to the primaries, she telephoned party members to urge them to vote. In some instances, they told her they were still planning to vote for Sharon.

"It's almost mystical," Neiman concludes.

The number of undecided voters among the immigrants doubled last week. About a third of them, equivalent to six or seven Knesset seats, have not yet decided whom to vote for. It is no wonder that Netanyahu chose to spend four hours last Friday in the studios of Channel 9 for one hour of screen time.