'Political Fashion Is Dictating a Rightward Shift'

So why does Roman Bronfman of Meretz think thousands of immigrants will be flocking to the party?

It may not be all that rare for a politician, but MK Roman Bronfman is somewhat perplexed by the twists and turns of politics that have led to him campaigning for a Knesset seat from within Meretz, vying for the same immigrant constituency as Amram Mitzna, with whom Bronfman began his political career in the Haifa municipality. Nine years ago, when Mitzna was elected mayor, Bronfman was on the city council. Together they created the successful municipal absorption authority, that will now serve both men in the chase after the Russian vote. Based on the measure of respect with which Bronfman speaks in praise of Mitzna ("He lives and breathes immigrant absorption, and I am actually the everlasting proof of that"), this particular arena is not expected to supply many headlines.

Neither candidate will have an easy task. Labor, which professes to be a potential ruling party, now has the support of a mandate-and-a-half's worth of the immigrant vote; Meretz, the party of human rights, receives only half a mandate from the immigrant public. Both parties are now being punished for the left's crimes of abandoning the immigrant public. "It was essentially an act of suicide by the left," says Bronfman, "but that is how the left behaved toward other population groups - low-income neighborhoods, Sephardim, the moderate religious - which it completely neglected."

Bronfman well remembers the moment when this approach toward the immigrants became part of the party line. Following the 1992 elections, Bronfman and Yossi Ginossar - then head of the immigrants desk at the Labor party - approached Yitzhak Rabin and attempted to tell the new prime minister about the common interest that bound up the left with hundreds of thousands of immigrants, who had come to Israel in search of an open society, in a democratic country, under conditions of peace. "Rabin, and after him, Peres as well, responded with disdain," Bronfman says, retracing the origins of the historic misstep. "It wasn't long before a great deal of anger had accumulated toward the party, which had received more than four mandates from the immigrants, but chose not to cultivate any real connection with them. But why accept my testimony? Two weeks ago, Shimon Peres said in an interview that it was the most tragic mistake made by Labor in the past 10 years. A decade later, it is our aim to repair the damage."

`Integration is the right choice'

Bronfman was commissioned to correct this mistake of the left, from the lofty heights of his assignment to fifth place on the Meretz list. Although Yossi Sarid reprimanded Bronfman about six months ago - for expressing support for Israelis who refuse army service in the territories, from the stage of a left-wing demonstration - there is a genuine ideological connection. Bronfman has come a long way since his days as a member of Yisrael b'Aliyah when the immigrant party was founded in 1996. On the wall of his Knesset office, there still hangs a photograph of him with Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein.

In retrospect, he says he joined Sharansky's party "out of a correct sense that big politics was blocked to immigrants, in a state of affairs in which the political establishment was not interested in representing the immigrants. The establishment of an immigrant party was at the time more of a social move than an ideological act. There is a certain symbolism that I left the Labor Party over implementation of the Direct Election Law, and with the change of the system, I am joining Meretz as an integrated whole. With Lieberman's formation of his right-wing bloc and my link with Meretz, we have carried out identical moves. Today it is only possible to present an ideology-based platform when you also offer representation to immigrants."

Nevertheless, while the move of Lieberman, who aligned himself with the religious right, has been accepted with understanding by the Russian-speaking public - the majority of which is now rooted in the right - Bronfman's move is considerably more problematic. Dr. Aharon Fein of the Tazpit research institute now describes the immigrants as a "frozen public," which in order to modify its positions must first "thaw" its previously frozen positions. Bronfman only partially agrees with this description. "I assess that 75 percent of the immigrants are situated right of center, and are split between the Likud and Yisrael b'Aliyah. Actually, if Labor does its homework, it can bite off an electoral chunk from this public. The immigrants aren't an inflexible right; they are mostly confused by the parties and the Russian-language media, which does not report accurately. They want to live in peace, in an open and equal society. The immigrants also want the state to be involved in housing and jobs; they are much more social-democratic than they themselves think."

Media brainwashing

To Bronfman's mind, the immigrants are mainly brainwashed by the Russian language media, which is fed by Yisrael b'Aliyah. "The media follows Sharansky's party, not because of personal connections with the party, but because they have a common interest," he explains. "The Russian-language media and Yisrael b'Aliyah are two elites that are interested in sectoralization of the immigration: Sharansky for fear of losing his constituents, and the media for fear of losing its readers. It is much more profound than simply saying `Sharansky controls the media.'"

In the unofficial media, such as response sites on the Internet, the connection between Meretz and Bronfman has been met with mixed reactions - varying from open support to sharp criticism. "Fantastic arrangement, Bronfman set himself up with a job," writes one. "The combination of left-wing party and immigrant party is a good choice," writes another. Bronfman was especially pleased with the response he received from a friend, Professor Alex Yachute, a veteran immigrant who has been active in Meretz for years. "You solved my problem of who to vote for," Yachute joyously informed him. Bronfman is relying on this sort of electoral support in approaching his position as head of the immigrants desk in Meretz. He assesses that in the upcoming elections, the immigrants will make their way to the new left-wing alignment from a base constituency that is common to it and Meretz - primarily young people.

The immigrants - a new elite

According to surveys among the immigrants, Bronfman is now getting between one and a half and two mandates. Meretz is hoping the association with the party will create a synergy that gives the alignment of parties on the left a greater number of mandates than the mathematical addition of seats between them; the danger is that the association with Meretz is liable to distance those immigrants that would have supported Bronfman only if he had run in the framework of an immigrant party. However, both sides - Bronfman and Meretz - view the current alignment as a long-term investment. Through the association with Bronfman, as well as his relatively high position on the list, Meretz is trying to position itself as a viable option for the Russian-speaking public, and shaping its changing image from a sector-based yuppie party to a more varied social-democratic bloc.

After joining Meretz, Bronfman wrote Sarid that his old party, the Democratic Choice, "represents an ever-increasing minority among immigrants of the former Soviet Union." A surprising statement, given the reality in which nearly one out of two immigrants describe themselves as somewhere between right and far right.

A growing public? "Yes," insists Bronfman. "It's hard to see it, because this public is embarrassed. Politics is also subject to fashion, and now fashion is dictating a rightward shift. But in the most critical months of this government, I went out to demonstrations with Peace Now and with Israeli Arabs, and then with activists from the low-income neighborhoods, against the budget. At the beginning I was alone, then with a few dozen others, and eventually with hundreds of people from the immigrant community. I am convinced that it is possible to persuade thousands of immigrants to support these positions."

Bronfman's biggest task will be to wage the struggle against Shinui. Until not long ago, Shinui and its anti-religious agenda would garner many votes in the immigrant public. This trend slowed when diplomatic and security issues replaced civil issues on the public agenda, but Shinui is still heavily dependent on the immigrants. As opposed to Meretz, it has worked consistently within the community, among other things through a Russian-language newspaper. Shinui MK Victor Brailovsky was assigned the job of being the party's man on the right, to attract the immigrant votes.

Not long ago, Meretz was called an "Arab party" in an article in Shinui's Russian-language newspaper. That was even before the opening salvo of election season, and one can only guess how this wrestling ring will look in the heat of the campaign. Bronfman is happily girding for battle. The expression, "They are s-c-a-r-e-d," coined by Netanyahu, will be one of the primary motifs of his propaganda against Shinui, and Bronfman intends to use it as an election slogan. He feels that Shinui's big problem is its avoidance of taking a clear stand on the main issue on today's agenda - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "A party that over the course of a year and a half does not take a stand on such a major subject is a party that has no place in an enlightened society. This is a group of escapists who are afraid of defining their stand on the conflict; they are simply cowards. I have no problem running against Tommy Lapid - the immigrants don't like cowards."

But Bronfman is storing up more ammunition. He intends to draw the immigrants' attention to Lapid's opposition to separation of religion and state (a call that has always been voiced by Bronfman's own party), and the disclosure of the legislative bill signed by Lapid together with Nahum Langental of the National Religious Party, to preserve the Jewish character of the State of Israel. "Everything that Tommy wants to blur, I will highlight," promises Bronfman.

Exactly two years ago, Lieberman sought to create a social front bearing the messianic name, Social Redemption Bloc. At the time, he spoke of forging an alliance between Sephardim and immigrants, and maybe ultra-Orthodox as well, for a redivision of power in Israel. The only thing left of this revolution is a few headlines, although Lieberman's right-wing bloc does reflect some facets of the perspective.

"Lieberman made a mistake when he sought to enlist the immigrants in a struggle against the elites, since the immigrants see themselves as an elite," says Bronfman. "They really are an elite in the cultural sense, although at the socio-economic level they are among the weakest strata of all."

It is from this starting point that he intends to offer them - from within the confines of Meretz - a new social formula: association with the elite as a precursor to joining together with the other sectors, on the basis of common interests and struggles. That is more than an election slogan. Lieberman and the right bloc, Bronfman in the left bloc, express not only a divergent political structure, but a more profound social change, as well.