It doesn't take much imagination to know how raucous sabras would react if a cabinet minister were suddenly to appear at a social gathering and deliver a speech. The new immigrant youngsters, though, warmly welcomed Housing Minister Natan Sharansky, who showed up unannounced, dressed as a cowboy, at a Purim party organized for them by the party Sharansky heads, Yisrael b'Aliyah, in Jerusalem.
Afterward they were delighted to see themselves on NTV - a Russian cable station that is popular among immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel - which was invited to film the event.
"It was really cool," notes Eli Kashdan, the director-general of Yisrael b'Aliyah. "Maybe these youngsters, who are around 17, don't actually know who Sharansky is, but they felt a sense of collective pride when a minister in the Israeli government came to them and spoke in Russian."
This anecdote reflects a change in Sharansky's personality. It is highly unlikely that he would have dared to enter a lions' den of this kind six years ago, when he established Yisrael b'Aliyah. Even now, he wasn't sure how things would turn out, but he took the step as part of an effort to change the party's image. If Sharansky and his colleagues have their way, Yisrael b'Aliyah will no longer be perceived as being a pensioners' party geared to grandparents but will appeal to the new immigrants' grandchildren, who are proud of their origins.
The party's intention is to set up new units that will attract young immigrants from the former Soviet Union - not a youth movement along the lines of the Communist Party's Komsomol, but discussion groups that will address the issues that are of concern to young people in Israel. There will also be leisure-time activities.
Between the Passover and Shavuot holidays this spring, for example, Yisrael b'Aliyah is sponsoring a "fun day" for young people at the Dead Sea. Sharansky will be there, too. "When the elections come around, we will be able to say, `OK, you had fun, now let's work together.' Things are moving along as planned," Kashdan says.
Sharansky's Hebrew has improved perceptibly of late: as part of a drive that is intended to extend the party's reach, he is taking private lessons in Hebrew.
While Yisrael b'Aliyah is on a youth quest, the other major Russian-oriented party, Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is searching for Israeli roots. In the past few months, quiet contacts have been under way between Yisrael Beiteinu and refugees from the now defunct Tsomet Party with the aim of merging the two organizations.
The idea is that Yisrael Beiteinu's contribution will be a living, kicking body, while Tsomet will accord historic legitimization in the eyes of the Israeli public. Rafael Eitan, the former chief of staff and cabinet minister who founded Tsomet, would be given an honorary role. However, Eitan, it turns out, has become a political rejectionist: His adamant refusal to return to political life, even as a guest of honor, is undermining the planned merger. Some Tsomet activists have already joined Yisrael Beiteinu, but without Raful, as Eitan is popularly known, the roots are missing. But the talks are continuing.
Even if the two Russian parties in the Knesset are looking in two very different directions, they have the same goal: to identify and locate new constituencies within the new immigrant population. That deep confusion exists among the nearly one million new arrivals from the former Soviet Union who have settled in Israel in the past 12 years is shown by a number of polls that examined their attitudes in the past few weeks.
A poll conducted by the Pori Institute for a Russian-language program on Channel 10 found that 53 percent of the new immigrants support the "transfer" of the Arabs from Israel and the territories. That figure drew surprised reactions from some of the discussants - all of them Russian speakers - in the television studio. Several of them maintained that the support for a "transfer" is actually higher among the new immigrants than the poll suggests. In any event, the results of the poll would seem to indicate a clear and sharp rightward tilt in Israeli terms.
At the same time, the Russian-language paper Novosti Nedieli held a poll on its Web site, asking, "What is your opinion of the letter of the army officers who refuse to serve in the territories?" More than 1,600 responses have been received to date, about 56 percent of which say that refusal to serve is an act of treason, 21 percent think it is a legitimate act to which they object, and 23 percent support refusal to serve.
"I was very surprised," says Guy Moldavsky, a new immigrant journalist, who wrote about the subject in his paper. "I thought the Russian street would be united on this subject and that MK Roman Bronfman [from the Democratic Choice party, who expressed support for refusal to serve in the territories] was a lone voice. Even if a poll on the Internet is not really accurate, the results are surprising."
It is possible that the explanation lies in the young age of most Web surfers - some are also soldiers who have done service in the territories during the present intifada. In the complex world of the new immigrants, there is not necessarily a contradiction between support for "transfer" and agreement with refusal to serve. The explanation may be the "revolutionary" character of the new immigrants, whose attitude toward the values of the state and its institutions differs from that of the veteran population. The attitudes that are currently taking shape do not necessarily derive from an ingrained ethos or taboo.
Even more problematic for the new immigrant parties than these internal contradictions are the findings of another poll, according to which, if elections were held now, 46 percent of the new immigrants would vote for Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister and only 24 percent for Ariel Sharon. None of those who took part in the poll said they would vote for Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.
Among the general population, Netanyahu holds only a 7 percent lead over Sharon, according to this poll. The poll shows a dramatic decline in support for Sharon among the new immigrants, which is exactly how the downfall of former prime minister Ehud Barak began. The initial signs were seen among the Russian-speaking population.
The poll also suggests a radicalization in the views of the new immigrants, who no longer consider Prime Minister Sharon the right person to fulfill their political and security de sires. A contributing factor to their political frame of mind is the fact that many new immigrants have been killed or wounded in the recent wave of terrorist attacks. If until about a year ago, the proportion of casualties among new immigrants in terrorist attacks was the same as their ratio in the population (approximately 20 percent), the attacks at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv and at the bat mitzvah party in Hadera pushed that figure to 37 percent.
The proportion of new immigrant casualties changes according to the site of the attack, but it is still higher than their ratio within the population. Even in the settlements, where only 2 percent of the new immigrants who arrived in the past decade reside, their casualty rate is strikingly high. The general situation, like the intensity of the pain inflicted on their community, is not reflected in the level of the new immigrants' commitment to Israel or in the form of feelings of regret for the move to Israel; it is seen in fluctuations in political attitude.
This political state of affairs, accompanied by the return to the one-ballot system of voting (instead of separate ballots for prime minister and party, the system that was in effect beginning in 1996), is bad news for the new immigrant parties. According to various estimates, Yisrael b'Aliyah and Yisrael Beiteinu will lose one seat each to the Likud, and things could become even worse for them if Netanyahu heads the Likud. Already now there are signs that Netanyahu, in addition to his consistent appeal to the new immigrants on political and security issues, is building himself up as the authentic representative of the new immigrants.
Sharansky's aides take note, for example, of an article that was recently published in one of the country's Russian-language papers about how Sharansky and his colleague, MK Yuli Edelstein, torpedoed a promise made by Netanyahu to build 100 hostels in order to alleviate the new immigrants' housing problems. According to Sharansky's staff, the timing of the article was not accidental, nor was it the result of briefings given to Russian reporters.
It is in the midst of this highly complex situation that the two new immigrant parties are looking for potential new voters. An examination of their positions shows little difference between Sharansky and Lieberman on security issues. The difference is that Lieberman speaks so assertively that he sometimes frightens the new immigrants, who are fearful of a full-scale war; whereas Sharansky speaks so faintly that they can't understand what he is trying to say.
Recently, the senior forum of Yisrael b'Aliyah adopted a resolution rejecting the Saudi peace initiative and threatening that the party would leave the government if the initiative were accepted. In a strategic decision, then, Sharansky's party has made itself an integral element of the "national camp." Yisrael b'Aliyah is no longer a party that can potentially be a member of a narrow left-led government, as in the period of Ehud Barak, but a clear-cut party of the right. Voters can therefore rest assured that by voting for Yisrael b'Aliyah they are also voting in favor of the national camp.
"Terrorism must be fought without political reservations," Sharansky told Ha'aretz this month. "We are the only place in the world where terrorism has autonomy. True peace can only be stabilized when the character of the Palestinian regime changes. I still feel like a dissident on this subject. In the United States they understand the connection between democracy and security, and they listen to what I have to say. Here in Israel, people want solutions now - peace now, separation now, transfer now. It won't work."
It is not by chance that Sharansky mentions the Americans in this context. Because his basic intention of making Yisrael b'Aliyah a general Israeli center party is not working out, he chooses to sharpen its image as right-wing immigrants' party, though not necessarily immigrants from the former Soviet Union. One of his target groups is the English-speaking new immigrant population, who still recall with pride Sharansky's Jewish activism in the Soviet Union and their part in the struggle for his release from prison. A large group of English-speaking new immigrants, mainly from the United States, is now working with Yisrael b'Aliyah to organize meetings in the homes of potential supporters in the Anglo community and information missions abroad.
Eli Kashdan, the party's director-general, who was born in Moscow and studied in the United States, is a useful bridge between the two worlds. "We will offer the new immigrant young people from the former Soviet Union communal pride, and the Anglos a state that is more Jewish and more democratic," Kashdan explains.
Yisrael Beiteinu, for its part, envisions a new role for itself in a future government. As the Meretz party sought to push Labor leftward in previous governments, says deputy minister Yuri Stern, his party will try to induce a government in which it is a member to make a sharp turn to the right. From their new position outside the government - and according to a new plan drawn up by Avigdor Lieberman, that in turn leads to the road to transfer.
Exchange: Settlements - for transfer
As part of a new plan "for a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians," Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman is proposing a population exchange that will include the evacuation of settlements in order to move Arabs from Israel into them.
Under the rubric "Population Exchanges," which is the last item in the 12-point plan, Lieberman proposes: "Within the framework of a settlement of this kind, serious consideration should be given to evacuating some of the isolated settlements in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria into areas within the boundaries of Israel, and the evacuation of Arab settlements in Israel into the areas of the Palestinian districts."
The plan does not specify which settlements Lieberman has in mind or the Arab locales in Israel that will be evacuated. Lieberman also proposes that every Arab citizen of Israel who, upon receiving an ID card, refuses to pledge unequivocal allegiance in writing to the State of Israel and agree to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, will be evacuated to one of the Palestinian districts of his choosing.
Lieberman's explanation for this clause is that "the presence of such a large minority with an attachment to the Palestinian entity ensures not only the continuation of friction between the two populations, but also the loss of Israeli control and sovereignty in places of large concentrations of Israeli Arabs, such as Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth."
In the same connection, Lieberman also suggests asking the United Nations, the European Community and the United States to provide official auspices - "perhaps for the first time in history" - for the separation of the populations within the current borders of the State of Israel. In the draft of the plan, Lieberman notes that this idea may sound unrealistic, but that he has no doubt that it is the most rational and humanitarian plan among all the options that are available to Israel.
The "Palestinian districts" that Lieberman is talking about are cantons (Gaza, Judea and Samaria, Jericho), which will be demilitarized and noncontiguous. The cantons plan replaces the de facto recognition of a Palestinian state that was part of Yisrael Beiteinu's original platform. (L.G.)
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