'There's No Word for Convergence in Russian'

At the end of last week, a few days after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked to explain in the Knesset plenum the reason for his absense of representatives of immigrants in his government, the Russian-language Reka radio station held a discussion on the subject.In the plenum, Olmert had claimed that he was not building his government along sectorial lines. Russian, a rich language, can offer several translations for the term "sectorial." The radio journalists and commentators are probably familiar with all of them. However, they chose to translate the word "sectarian" as "ethnic" and "ethnic" as "non-Jewish." And then they seriously considered the question of whether the prime minister does not consider them Jews.

This is not the only semantic issue on the agenda among the Russian-speaking public. The linguistic creation "hitkansut" (usually translated as "convergence"), which is a challenge in other languages as well, in Russian invites an array of possibilities; the very act of choosing among them determines one's awareness and viewpoint. The word "consolidation," with a positive connotation in Russian, is chosen by only a small number of writers and commentators to describe Olmert's political plan.

Why choose a positive term when one can attribute negative attributes to the plan? For example, the word sviortivaniya, which is also used to describe a process of blood clotting or milk curdling, and the military term peredislokatzia, which has a connotation of withdrawal and arouses unpleasant memories of World War II.

"Not only is there no word in Russian for 'hitkansut,' but Russian-speakers do not understand the term, neither the reason for it nor the timing," says Dr. Eliezer Feldman, a commentator who conducts surveys among the Russian-speaking public. "On the other hand, nobody is attempting to explain. The playing field has been abandoned," says Feldman.

Here are two findings from an interesting experiment conducted by Feldman about two weeks ago, which reflect the complex attitude toward the political plan among the Russian-speaking public. In a survey in which the Russian-speakers were asked a direct question, only 13 percent expressed support for the convergence plan. When the question was accompanied by the pollster's explanation, support rose to 40 percent.

"The high number does not necessarily reflect the situation in the Russian community," explains Feldman. "The explanation that we gave those polled was positive in essence. We said, 'Israel must carry out another withdrawal, in the course of which it will abandon small settlements and leave large settlements in its hands.' That explanation that does not explain the size of the plan, but from this experiment we can nevertheless learn something: There is still a large Russian-speaking bloc in favor of a political settlement, and information can help. The problem is that nobody is providing information. Olmert is in trouble."

The Russian-language media and their target audience see the government as a body that is hostile to them. The question "Why do they hate us?" has been asked frequently since the government was formed. It is not only the failure to appoint MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) as minister of absorption, nor is it only the fact that MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu) has remained outside the government. It is also the "partnership law" (a type of civil marriage for those not allowed to marry according to Jewish religious law) that was presented as a major Kadima campaign promise to Russian-speakers, and was subjected to the "veto" of Shas in the coalition agreement; it is also the senior politicians who came knocking at the doors of the Russian-language channels during the election campaign, and disappeared after it.

Political consequences

This state of affairs has social and political consequences, and is liable to have consequences on the diplomatic level as well. When the time for the convergence plan arrives, it will require popular support. Over one million citizens are now outside the potential support group. Not necessarily because of their opposition to the political step, but because of bitterness and anger at the ruling party. After all, they followed Sharon to the disengagement, not out of enthusiasm for the evacuation of Gush Katif, but because of personal confidence in the leader. Olmert, for the time being, enjoys total lack of confidence.

"I don't know whether he has caught up with [Labor chair and Defense Minister] Amir Peretz from below, but he is getting close," says an MK from Kadima, with cynicism.

"The person who defined the importance of popular support is the prime minister himself, when he declared that he would devote the coming period to dialog with all parts of the nation," says Lior Horev, until recently Kadima's strategic adviser in the elections.

"Popular support is also required because it has a direct influence on the Knesset factions. Each of them identifies the views of its electorate and aligns itself in accordance with them. Moreover, in the absence of popular support, one sees mainly the opponents, who are always better organized. The public appearance of support has moral significance, and reinforces the sense of the legitimacy of a political move. There is no question that the Russian-speakers are an important component in this equation. We invested endless hours in them during the elections. Since then, many mistakes have piled up."

Political commentators among the Russian-speaking public say that, as opposed to the veteran Israeli population, which is capable of forming ad hoc alliances with its leaders, relations with the Russian-speakers are formed slowly, but destroyed quickly. "The Russian media are doing an injustice to Olmert and Kadima," says David Adelman, the spokesman of the Russian-speakers headquarters of Kadima in the elections. "But they themselves are to blame for the fact that they allow this to be done to them without reacting. It is liable to cost them the convergence plan."

The composition of the government does not provide a natural candidate to market the convergence plan among the Russian-speaking community. The entire government is described in the Russian media as lacking experience. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, in particular, is seen as lacking authority. He is not the person who will be able to carry the burden of public relations in a community that sees him as an absurd appointment.

Within the ruling party, the situation is even more complicated. The Russian-speaking MKs are by nature those most suited for mediating with the community. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon had Solodkin and MK Michael Nudelman, who although they are not considered authorities on security, were able to break the monolithic hold of the Russian right, which opposed the disengagement. Now they have both been insulted by Olmert, and there is no chance that they will help to sell the convergence plan.

This week Solodkin was invited for political interview on the BBC Russian-language broadcasts. There Solodkin, who has a doctorate in political economics, happens to be considered a proper authority, and is a frequent guest on this important program. When asked about the convergence plan, she said that she is not representative because they did not include her in its discussion. She also says there that unlike the disengagement, this is an unclear plan. It still must be studied. We can assume that her studying will be long and slow.

"It's clear that Olmert cannot depend on my automatic support on any issue," she said this week in her Knesset office. "On the matter of the convergence plan I will want to see maps, and I will turn to my colleagues in the strategic research institutes. I'm afraid that the Russian community will be very hesitant about the convergence. The question, after all, is who is in the leadership and who is responsible for the outcome? In my meetings with the Russian-speakers, they tell me that the problem is not that I'm not the minister of absorption, but 'look who they gave us as defense minister.'"

So of the three Russian-speaking MKs, one remains: The burden of marketing the convergence plan is expected to fall on Kadima's new MK, Zeev Elkin, who only a year ago headed the Russian-speakers headquarters against the disengagement plan, within the Likud. Elkin actually has a good relationship with the Prime Minister's Office, but he admits that even he does not understand the essence of the convergence plan as yet. "The final structure of the plan has yet to be published, but I accept the principle of setting permanent borders, with which Kadima went to the elections," he says.

On the political level, Elkin believes that what will determine the attitude of Russian-speakers to the convergence is not the extent of the withdrawal, but the future of the territories that remain under Israeli control. "In that sense, the Russian-speaking public differs from the veteran Israeli public," he analyzes. "If there is a decision about the immediate annexation of settlement blocs, that will be more acceptable to the Russian immigrants than the option of future international recognition of the permanent borders. The Russian immigrants have great confidence in a country's unilateral decisions, that's what they learned from their experience in the Soviet empire. If there is annexation, it will be possible to sell the convergence plan to over 50 percent of this public," says Elkin, adding: "A great deal depends on what Kadima does for the Russians until then."

Losing influence

To judge by the events of last week, Kadima is not doing much. The budget discussions were a golden opportunity to demonstrate the commitment of the new party to the immigrant community. Instead of demonstrating what it has achieved for the benefit of the immigrants, Kadima handed the victory to Lieberman on a silver platter. Today Yisrael Beitenu is waving a two-page paper enumerating its budgetary achievements for the benefit of the immigrant community.

This step is so surprising, politically speaking, that it is being subject to endless interpretation. Its transparent stupidity has people looking for sophistication in it. One of the explanations for this behavior is that Kadima has given up on gaining support among the immigrants, and is strengthening Lieberman in this community, so that he will be the one to bring their support for the convergence plan in the future. "Nonsense," says Kadima spokesman Shmuel Dahan. "Kadima is not giving up on the new immigrants. I know how important the prime minister considers this community. At the moment we are constructing an infrastructure."

Until an infrastructure is constructed, what already exists is being destroyed: Since the elections, Kadima has lost (according to Feldman's survey) about two Russian seats. According to that same survey, Lieberman, in the opposition, has increased his power by about two seats.