'Today They Are All Bibi'

Last week the Israeli Russian-language Web site NEWSru posted a survey in which readers were asked who was the country's best prime minister. There were only three options: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. The answer is striking and surprising: 63 percent chose Netanyahu, 3 percent Barak and 35 percent Sharon - formerly second only to the czar in the amount of admiration received.

Despite this kind of survey's inherent inaccuracy, it provides an indication and a bleak moral: Hurting the weak classes can be forgiven; disengagements cannot. "Russian speakers are natural supporters of Likud," claims the new Russian-language Likud Faithful Forum. "The two Knesset seats for Likud in the last elections were a temporary hitch," says a forum member, referring to support from the Russian-speaking community. "Part of the problem was that the disengagement was identified with Likud, whereas in fact it was carried out by Kadima people. Today our public understands this."

The declared intention of the Likud Faithful Forum (that is, of those who did not abandon it even during the hard times when the party was out of fashion) is to "create two-way communication between the Likud movement and the community of Russian speakers and to allow them to influence the civil agenda in a real way."

The forum has just been established, and it already has an executive board, with Roman Borochov as chairman and Vlad Braslavsky as the head of the field activity department. There are six committees, among them education, welfare and housing headed by Asya Antov and information headed by Dr. Mark Radutzki. The forum has even been allocated a special room at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. The intention is to encourage civic thinking in the Russian-speaking public. And incidental to that aim: to win Russian speakers over to Likud.

We met at the Likud branch office in south Tel Aviv's Hatikva quarter; inevitably, on Etzel Street, named after the underground militia of Likud's pre-state antecedent. The meager premises radiate the warmth of simplicity; most people who go there are Russian speakers who live in the neighborhood. The walls tell a social and political story. They are adorned with portraits of Menachem Begin and Ze'ev Jabotinsky; between them is a painting of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. There are also pictures of Netanyahu with local activists, and on the front door is a large poster of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Beyond the party affiliation of the forum's four leaders, they have in common the fact that they immigrated to Israel 17 years ago. That was the height of the immigration wave, and perhaps this experience is needed for an activist to move into a leadership position with self-confidence. What divides them is intra-party affiliation: one of them at least, Antov, is in Moshe Feiglin's camp.

"Seventy percent of the Russians in Likud came in through Feiglin," says a Russian speaker close to Netanyahu. "Today they are all Bibi [Netanyahu]." The forum members' big success has been their ability to unite ideological groups of Russian speakers within the movement. Such attempts failed in the past, but nothing unifies like the scent of victory.

During the conversation the forum leaders reject the claim that civil society is alien to the Soviet experience from which they came. "People organized in a civil society in Russia when it was possible to go to jail for that. Here at least we are acting in a democracy; limited, but a democracy," says Antov. Others say that people who came from the Soviet Union know better than anyone what a democracy shouldn't look like.

In Netanyahu's milieu they were at first leery of the group, which looked like it could represent a potential revolt. The suspicion has dissipated and Netanyahu is now eager to cooperate. He is just afraid of one thing: an Internet site in Russian and any activity that entails publication in a language he doesn't speak.

This is understandable. About a year ago a new Web site in Russian caused him tremendous damage when the site posted radical right-wing commentary. He ordered the site to be taken down immediately but was left with the feeling that in an unknown language things can happen he cannot control.

Ever since, Netanyahu has made a point of demanding a translation of everything published in Russian, "with a notary's confirmation," as the joke goes. At this stage it appears he has no cause for concern. Only he can bring them to the promised land of governing, and they have enlisted in the cause.

"We have come to translate civic initiative into political initiative," says Braslavsky. "If we get people's everyday life in order, the big problems will solve themselves," adds Borochov, summing up the forum's approach.

And what about the Golan Heights, what about Homesh?

"Not at the moment; now we are here to get democracy out of the kitchen," they say, encapsulating the initiative in a popular Soviet phrase from the bad old days, when the only place people dared speak their minds was in the privacy of their own homes with close relatives.