So Many Immigrant Candidates, but Little Unity

In the not so distant past, Yelena carried on a hot and heavy romance with Anatoly. Two weeks ago, she left him for good, for Ephraim.

In the not so distant past, Yelena carried on a hot and heavy romance with Anatoly. Two weeks ago, she left him for good, for Ephraim. Somewhere in the middle she also had a quick dalliance with Boris, who was simultaneously carrying on with Robert. But Robert has actually been stealing glances at Mark, who is still seeing Miriam. And then there are the rumors about how Boris is being supported on the side by Victor's "boss." Robert and Yelena told him all about it. Victor was furious, and Boris denied it all. As for Yuri, he would be pleased if everyone lived together happily ever after, but cannot guarantee anything.

No, this is not the soap-opera digest of some daytime drama airing on the Viva channel - it is a synopsis of what has been going on in the Russian community in Netanya prior to the upcoming municipal elections. Robert Ilatov, who heads the local "Yisrael Beitenu" list, is hoping to ride on the tails of his party's success in the latest Knesset elections; in Netanya, the right-wing party garnered 7 percent of the vote, mainly from immigrant voters - double the amount of votes that went to "Yisrael b'Aliyah." He recently held talks with Boris Tzirulnik, a member of the city council who heads the independent "Aminut" (Credibility) immigrant list. The two sides had agreed that Ilatov would head a joint electoral list, but negotiations subsequently fell apart when the sides failed to reach agreement on the ranking of the rest of the candidates.

In the past few days, a rumor has been making the rounds of Netanya that Tzirulnik is receiving support secretly from Am Ehad (One Nation), which is trying to carve out its own immigrant constituency. Tzirulnik denies it, but the rumors were close enough to convince Am Ehad director-general Avi Bitzur to issue an official letter in which he declared the party's sworn intention to run its own mayoral candidate, Victor Sarussi. Running in second place on Sarussi's list is Tommy Riegler, a member of Tzirulnik's faction on the current city council.

When the union with Aminut fell apart, Ilatov opened negotiations to join with the list of Mark Zlobovnik, who recently resigned as personal assistant for immigrant affairs to Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg. Zlobovnik is supposed to be running on the Likud list, on one of the "national lists" of immigrants the Likud is bankrolling, in return for an up-front promise of support for the Likud candidate for mayor. The only snag is that it is not at all clear that Zlobovnik will even be able to run, as he only recently resigned from his position at the municipality.

About two weeks ago, Yelena Kim took the political establishment by surprise when she joined the local Labor party list. Although somewhat surprising, her defection from the ranks of Yisrael b'Aliyah - which has merged with Likud - to Labor did not provoke any outraged reactions by high-ranking members of the immigrant party. Basically, Yuli Edelstein and Marina Solodkin remained silent, perhaps seeing poetic justice in a move that is liable to erode local support for the Likud, which has as yet failed to make good on the promises that were issued in order to bring about full unification of Yisrael b'Aliyah with the dominant party.

Four separate immigrant lists

Confused? Rightly so. A month-and-a-half before the municipal elections, the immigrant arena is as divided as can be, hard pressed to merge its forces in preparation for what could end up as a rearguard battle of the decaying Russian political establishment. Netanya is but one example of what is happening in many other towns and cities. Despite the pervading sense of loss of power that was triggered by the breakdown of Yisrael b'Aliyah, and declarations about the need to realize the full potential of the Russian vote through the unification of electoral lists, this is barely happening at all.

How to explain the impending electoral fiasco? "There are two complementary paradigms at work here," says political consultant David Edelman, who worked on the immigrant electoral effort in former prime minister Ehud Barak's 1999 campaign. "We are both Jews and Russians. We want unity, but whenever someone makes a move to be the leader, the others ask themselves just who he thinks he is to put himself out in front." MK Yuri Stern of National Union made efforts to form a united list to represent the Russian street in the municipal elections, but failed.

Thus, four separate immigrant lists are expected to be running in Netanya, along with the general parties that are also campaigning for the votes of approximately 50,000 Russian-speaking potential voters. The Russian-speaking public is very noticeable in the city, where Russian is the dominant language. Nevertheless, the immigrants have only three representatives on the outgoing city council. An alliance of forces might have effected a significant change in the local political world, in which heavy influence is wielded by the religious and the haredim, who control three of the four deputy mayor positions.

Netanya, with its potential to be a booming vacation and tourism city, is now in a state of dejection. The situation can partly be attributed, of course, to the 13 terrorist attacks in Netanya in the past three years. But the religious decree that the city remain hermetically sealed on the Sabbath does little to encourage tourism, and makes life hard on the immigrants.

Too many interests

In her office in the municipality, Yelena Kim, who also chairs the Association of Immigrant Single Mothers, declares that Netanya is not a good city for immigrants. It doesn't have any cultural centers or clubs for immigrants. The Princess Hotel, which has served for over a decade as an absorption center for the elderly, is now facing closure. The city is overrun with drug dealing and youth crime, two phenomena that have claimed a heavy toll among Russian-speaking youth. Based on data cited by Kim, over 30 percent of 10-to-16-year-olds in Netanya's Russian-speaking community use drugs, and the school dropout rate in this age bracket reaches 22 percent.

Still gracing the wall behind Kim are pictures of Edelstein and Solodkin; Sharansky's photo was demonstratively removed from the wall. "He ditched us," she fumes. Having been left without a political home, and she says, in protest of "the mayor of Netanya's scorn for immigrants" and Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attitude toward single mothers, Kim felt free to align herself with the Labor candidate. "My political opinions place me closest of all to Moledet and Kach," she says. "The Likud has become Meretz."

The Labor party did not examine Kim and her political opinions too closely. The downtrodden party hungers after any Russian-speaker willing to help it in the municipal political arena. Party director-general Ophir Pines and head of the party's local headquarters, MK Eitan Cabel, overcame the opposition to Kim's arrival by veteran Laborites, and are expecting political gains accruing from Kim's public status.

"Some parties put immigrants on their lists only for the joint photo op," rails Boris Tzirulnik. In the course of his 14 years in Israel, Tzirulnik, a 34-year-old software engineer and the director of an immigrant teachers organization, has reversed course. He began his political life in Netanya on a list that combined immigrants and veterans, and now he heads a list of immigrants. "My unsuccessful experience with the combined list proves that this is how it will continue - for another 20 years we will have to offer a unique response to our community," he says. Tzirulnik is well aware of the feelings of his constituency, which wants unity. Not long ago, a senior program host on the Reka Russian-language radio station tried to foster some on-the-air unity between Tzirulnik and Rober Ilatov. The attempt failed.

Ilatov, who chairs the municipality's absorption committee and owns a building maintenance firm, immigrated from Uzbekistan 13 years ago at age 18 - a fact that does not prevent him from still heading an immigrant list. He considers the local Moledet list a natural ally, notwithstanding the fact that Ilatov believes that Yisrael Beitenu's decision to run for Knesset together with Nation Union was a major mistake. He believes that religious voters did not want to vote for Russians, and that the Russians defected to Shinui. "In the local landscape, there are other interests," he feels. "In a negative sense, there are more interests here than in the Knesset elections. Netanya has a diverse population ... There are no big problems, but there is continual tension in the air."

Here in this complex city, the Russian-speaking community is heading into the elections amid a sense of loss of power, a crisis of faith in its relations with the political establishment, and a longing for the unity that it has not succeeded in effecting. Little wonder that the survey conducted by David Edelman found that if the elections were held today, only about 20 percent of the immigrants would even come to the ballot. At this stage, there seem to be more candidates and consultants than voters.

Lieberman as the victim

It was a predictable development, but the speed with which it took root was surprising. Within a week of the Haaretz report on the investigation being conducted of Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he was transformed in the Russian arena from suspect to conspiracy victim. The conspiracy has a defined target: sabotaging the municipal election campaign and crushing Russian political power. Senior commentators in the Russian media are united in the sense that there is a scheme afoot that is targeting not only Lieberman, but the entire Russian-speaking community. The conventional wisdom is that since the community was weakened in the aftermath of the Knesset elections and Yisrael b'Aliyah's demise, unidentified representatives of the veteran establishment are now poised to exploit the weakness, and zero in on the first leader of the Russian street.

"The war between Lieberman and the police may be old, but its ethnic aspect is very clear," explains Dr. Alex Feldman of the Mutagim Institute, which conducts public opinion polls in the Russian street. "In the `Mizrachi vs. Lieberman' war, it is absolutely clear where the Russians stand. There is no political dimension to their outlook; this is how the Russian street would react even if it were `Mizrachi vs. Bronfman.' If it eventually evolves into a trial against Lieberman, the demonstrations and the reactions will be much more extreme than in the Gregory Lerner affair." Lieberman himself has encouraged these feelings through statements made in the Russian media in the past few weeks.

The Russian street has already forgotten that Yisrael b'Aliyah collapsed because it failed to get enough votes. The version now being fixed in the collective memory is that Ariel Sharon engineered Natan Sharansky's fall from grace in order to swallow him into the Likud, and that Police Major-General Moshe Mizrachi is now being enlisted to bring down Lieberman and crush what remains of the Russian political world. All of this is linked to the news about the intention to close down the Reka radio station and news about organized crime from the former Soviet Union, creating the infrastructure for a perspective that says: "We are weak, we are hated, and we have to restore the power to ourselves."

With these factors in the background, voices in the Russian street are increasingly calling for the establishment of a new Russian party that would be more rancorous and less constructive than was Yisrael b'Aliyah. Lieberman's higher ratings are paralleled by the plummeting of community support for Sharon. In one popular stand-up routine, he is now being portrayed as a senile old man, an obese and short-tempered tyrant - very far from the respect that has until now been showered on him.