Labor's Long Nyet' of the Soul

Amram Mitzna's election campaign among immigrants from the former Soviet Union is being waged in uncharted and decidedly hostile territory

If one of the Israeli television channels had done a live broadcast of Amram Mitzna's campaign appearance before new immigrants at a Hadera absorption center, Justice Mishael Cheshin would not have found any reason to yank the proceedings off the air. The conscientious chairman of the Central Elections Committee would have been hard-pressed to find even a trace of election propaganda at the Labor Party chairman's campaign event. Mitzna's speech, so objective that it was more like a civics lesson than a campaign address, would even have earned Education Minister Limor Livnat's seal of approval.

Speaking slowly in simple Hebrew, Mitzna told the Russian- and Spanish-speaking olim who haven't been in the country long that there will soon be an election in Israel and that there are a lot of parties to choose from. He talked about the Likud and its past leaders, and, in the course of his remarks, gave Begin and Netanyahu as much emphasis as he did Ben-Gurion and Rabin. He explained a little bit about the differences between the philosophies of the two major parties. The fairness of the speech was beyond reproach, but with the election around the corner, it certainly wasn't the type to pay immediate dividends.

Maybe this approach will pay off some time in the future, when the olim recall that nice man who came to teach them about the political system in Israel and posed for pictures with some of them. Actually, at this point, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference. Not all of the 300 olim at the absorption center, some of whom are students who made aliyah from the former Soviet Union without their parents, have the right to vote in this election (a right that takes effect after three months in the country). Even those who have been here a bit longer haven't the slightest idea what's going on. Talking with them about politics makes one wonder about the wisdom of immediately granting olim the right to vote.

"How many Arabs are there in Israel?" one woman from Kazakhstan asked in a whisper during Mitzna's speech. She wasn't satisfied with the answer that she was given - "about a million." As it turned out, she makes no distinction between Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians in the territories, "because it's all the same thing." Then she asked how many Jews there are in Israel and passed the information on to a friend who'd recently come from Kirghizstan. Four days from now, they'll be exercising their right to vote.

Surprisingly, at the end of the gathering with Mitzna, all the people sitting near the two women said they planned to vote for Labor. But credit for this apparent little victory isn't really due to Mitzna. Evidently, they all thought that the question was being posed to them by "the party" and thus required the "correct" answer. Only Josh Keidan, a young immigrant from Boston, gave a different reply. He knew Mitzna from a previous solidarity visit to Haifa, Boston's sister city. "This isn't the same person at all," he commented at the end of the meeting at the absorption center. "It looks like they replaced him with someone else. This time, I'm going to vote for Sharon."

Keidan isn't the only one. Most of the olim will vote Likud. The polls are predicting that the Russian-speaking community will give the party about six seats, making it the party with the largest amount of support from immigrants. The same polls show Labor receiving 4.5 percent of the Russian vote, or about 1.5 seats. This is a significant increase from the 2.8 percent with which Labor began this election campaign, but not enough to overcome all the years when Labor completely ignored and neglected this community.

Labor's election campaign among the million Russian-speaking immigrants is a journey into uncharted territory in which the candidates are completely unfamiliar with the public they're trying to reach. They find this public alien and intimidating. Only 2.5 percent of the party's election budget was allotted to the effort to gain the votes of about 17 percent of the electorate. "Labor is still trapped by the trauma of the past," says a party official. "It's been trying to woo Makhlouf from Dimona for 40 years now. It's invested millions in him and he still votes Likud. And his grandson will vote Likud, too. They just don't know how to talk to the olim."

"Labor should be able to speak to both Makhlouf and to Boris," Labor party secretary Ophir Pines-Paz said this week. "It's failing to internalize the changes in Israeli society because it's not an open party. It was hard for me, too, to enter the party as a young man. Now we're operating in a hostile environment. Our local authority heads, who are used to working with the olim's representatives on the municipal level on a daily basis, are calling to tell me what they're saying about us now. They're saying that we're traitors, that Ben-Gurion was from the Likud."

Given the anti-left atmosphere among the olim, putting Shimon Peres in charge of the campaign in this sector would seem an odd move, to say the least. But it's actually not as strange as it seems. Peres may not be Mr. Popularity among the Russian-speaking public - who are fed a lot of talk about the "Oslo criminals" by the Russian media here - but at least he's someone they know, and they feel a certain amount of respect for him. In this community, the rest of the Labor candidates are complete unknowns.

Peres' campaign team prepared a list of six messages for their boss to convey at meetings with olim. The first was: "Mitzna projects integrity, because he is an honest man." The others briefly outlined the party's profile and positioned it as the antithesis of the Likud. This approach was certainly very neat and to the point. At the few campaign events for olim that Peres managed to attend, it even seemed to work. But with his endless travels during the height of the election campaign, Peres was hardly here. And when he was around for a couple of days, he suddenly became a virtual prime ministerial candidate, which only confused the olim even more.

Meanwhile, a power struggle is taking place between Sofa Landver, who is 22nd on Labor's Knesset list and fighting for her political future, and Neda Tchozoi, the representative of the "Perestroika" group (composed of olim from the major wave of Russian immigration in the 1990s) in the party. A lot of the party's energy is being squandered on resolving the overt and covert battles between these two, energy that could have been better invested elsewhere. It's one way in which the little things that take on big significance in an election campaign are being forgotten.

Mitzna's next stop after the gathering at the Hadera absorption center was at an election convention at the Armon David banquet hall in the city, where a terrorist shot and killed six people at the bat mitzvah of a girl from the Russian community about a year ago. Almost the entire Labor faction was there to put on a strained display of unity. The convention was supposed to be a mixture of olim and vatikim (old-timers), but the olim were vastly outnumbered, and the few who were there felt they didn't really belong. No one made any attempt to address them in their language and not a single piece of written material in Russian was prepared for them.

"I like Labor, but other new immigrants don't know the party," Yevgenia Aristadov, who made aliyah three years ago, says in broken Hebrew. "The party isn't doing anything. Even the little Moledet party has a newspaper in Russian. We have nothing. I brought my two sisters here tonight. They don't speak Hebrew and there's no information for them. The Likud has information in Russian. And Sharansky and Lieberman do, of course. But Labor has nothing. You'll see - Everything here is going to be in Hebrew and we won't understand it."

And so it was. In fact, the atmosphere of the entire event was off. While some young party members shouted out enthusiastic chants, most of the people congregated there were quietly talking about the looming disaster, trying to outdo each other in their predictions of how few seats the party would win in the next Knesset. It was testimony to another characteristic of this peculiar election campaign: While politicians at the height of an election campaign naturally act as if victory is imminent, this time their public is discarding that pretense the moment the politicians are out of earshot.

At the event, the Mitzna campaign ad in which he called Sharon "the Godfather" was shown, even though Mitzna has already acknowledged that this was a mistake. "What can I tell you?" sighs Shoshana Hadad, a long-time Labor supporter from Hadera. Her parents used to wage ideological battles on the party's behalf in their predominantly right-wing neighborhood. She says she'll vote Labor again this time, mostly out of habit, but admits that a lot of her friends in town are abandoning the party. "The thing that bothered them most is when Mitzna said, `It's either them or us,'" says Hadad, referring to the way that Mitzna ruled out the possibility of joining a unity government. "He sounds very arrogant."

It's a little hard to fathom: At the absorption center, Mitzna was almost ludicrously modest, and here he is perceived as arrogant. That's how it is when you have a basically unknown candidate. Or maybe the voters are looking for an excuse to leave the party that's become fashionable to abandon.

Among the olim, Mitzna's newness as a candidate presents a special stumbling block. If he's not very familiar to the public at large, he's a complete stranger to these new immigrants. For reasons that aren't very clear, Labor shelved its original plan in which Mitzna was going to be promoted to the olim with the slogan "Haifa as a model." The Russian-speaking public knows Haifa as a model of successful absorption in a mixed city where olim, Arabs and veteran Israelis live side by side. The municipal absorption authority's exemplary success was supposed to have given Mitzna a platform for reaching out to the olim.

Instead, the party decided to tout Mitzna as a "strong leader" in Russian (rather than as a "trustworthy leader" as in the Hebrew slogan, in the belief that "the olim like force"). But Sharon is also identified with force, so Mitzna sacrificed his only relative advantage in this race.

A pro-Mitzna telemarketing campaign directed at about 50,000 immigrant households in 40 locations around the country is the only place where this aspect of his resume has been mentioned. The callers describe Mitzna as "an expert at conflict resolution" and cite Haifa as a model.

A visit to the telemarketing headquarters in Givatayim offers a neat glimpse of the modern Israeli experience. The callers are an object lesson in the country's socio-economic situation. There are doctors, engineers, actors, writers and others who have come to work hard for NIS 18 an hour because they have no other income. The conversations they have with olim all over the country are also a microcosm of the overall reality and how it's reflected in this election campaign in particular. The three toughest hurdles the telemarketers have encountered: the evening of the suicide bombings at the old Tel Aviv bus station, when upset olim refused to talk politics "on such a night"; when Mitzna compared Sharon to the Godfather, which dismayed many olim - even some who aren't Likud voters - who felt that Mitzna wasn't showing the prime minister proper respect; and the couple of days when Peres was making headlines as a possible replacement for Mitzna. The olim couldn't figure out why people were calling to talk to them about Mitzna when they'd heard what his own party was saying about him and when the papers were reporting that Peres might well be Labor's candidate for prime minister.

The callers were instructed not to recite their spiel to anyone who declared his intention to vote for Sharon or Avigdor Lieberman, but to focus on supporters of Shinui and Yisrael b'Aliya and undecided voters. About 30 percent of immigrants, an especially high rate, fall into the latter category. This is also the first election campaign in which 10 percent of olim are saying that they don't plan to vote at all. Some are unaware that the single-ballot voting system has been reinstated, and others are even unaware that an election is going to take place.

When the person on the other end of the line is willing to talk, the telemarketer presents Mitzna as "a person who knows how to solve crises" and finishes the conversation by saying: "Personally, I'd rather that my prime minister be someone who knows how to resolve crises instead of creating them."

"It's a Russian interpretation of the situation," says the woman managing the telemarketing campaign. "The olim don't want internal rifts and conflicts, they want to unite against the external threat. They certainly don't want to attack the Haredim (which is something the callers emphasize when talking to potential Shinui voters - L. G.). They've experienced the persecution of the Jews in the Soviet Union and they don't want to become persecutors of Jews in Israel."

Meretz voters are told that they'll be wasting their vote. Yisrael b'Aliya voters are told that the time has come to vote for an Israeli party rather than an immigrant party, which isn't doing very much for them anyway. The most effective part of the pitch is supposed to be the emotional appeal at the end. Someone with kids or grandkids is told: "Where would you like your son or grandson to do his army service? In Jenin, Ramallah or Nablus, or inside the State of Israel?"

But obvious as the answer may be, it still isn't pushing the olim into the Labor Party. They're not moving to the right solely because of their ideology; it's also because the left has utterly failed to make itself relevant to them. No wonder, then, that one of the olim reached by Mitzna's telemarketers was convinced that the call was really for phone sex. That he was more than willing to talk about.