Yours, Benjamin Netanyahu

The former prime minister is a public figure whose activities are ever more conspicuous among the Russian immigrant community.

Five new facts about Benjamin Netanyahu and the immigrant public:

1. The former prime minister hired a special adviser to deal with immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States about two weeks ago. Until Netanyahu hired him, Benny Briskin was an adviser to Yuri Stern, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office, during which time he also advised Netanyahu in a volunteer capacity. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not overly enthusiastic about an adviser in his office helping Netanyahu. Someone said something about it to Stern, who said something to Briskin. Briskin made his choice - and went with Netanyahu.

In what was presumably an incidental development, Briskin revived his regular personal opinion column in Vesti, the leading immigrant newspaper. He does not write about Netanyahu. The column focuses on politics and regional current events, just as it did when he was a Vesti columnist during the Barak administration.

2. Concerned citizen Netanyahu is conscientious about maintaining contact with the immigrant public. He writes for Russian-language newspapers, grants interviews, meets with editors and publishers. On Rosh Hashanah, Netanyahu placed large ads wishing readers a happy holiday. He did so as a friend to the Russian-speaking public.

3. After the crash of the Siberian plane above the Black Sea, Netanyahu ran an ad in Vesti in which he expressed his grief and his identification with the immigrant community. "At these times, I want to be with your community. Be strong, we need you. Yours, Benjamin Netanyahu," he wrote. He was the only public figure to do so.

4. His former (and at times also current) spokesman, Aviv Bushinsky, has begun to write a regular column of political commentary in the newspaper Novosti. Bushinsky is presented to readers as having been Netanyahu's spokesman. In the first column, Bushinsky criticized the Sharon administration's soft policies; in his second column, he criticized the faulty information campaign in the "Karine A" affair. He wrote (practically) nothing about Netanyahu, and only criticized the Sharon government. This is, after all, what commentators do.

5. In a popularity ranking of politicians among the Russian emigre community, Netanyahu regularly ranks fourth, behind - in order: Sharon, Avigdor Lieberman (National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu) and Natan Sharansky (Yisrael b'Aliyah). The prime minister who succeeded him, Ehud Barak, has vanished from the list as if he had never existed.

Skirting Sharon

There is no need for particularly astute political acumen to understand that Netanyahu is not doing what he is doing in the Russian immigrant community simply as a former prime minister. He is acting like a future prime minister, sowing future support among an already sympathetic public. He is making the effort, he is tilling the soil, he is preparing. Netanyahu is developing as much of a presence as any active politician would.

He has taken on the persona of friend to the community, and since September 11, also as expert on the war on terror. In a Vesti article, Netanyahu analyzed what should be done, and what he would do. In a Novosti interview, he assessed that the Likud list for the next Knesset elections would have room on it for more than just one former Russian. He is careful not to tread on Sharon's honor, and has not a single word of open criticism to say. He has been advised - and wisely so - that the immigrants are hankering for quiet, at least in the domestic arena, and anyone who violates that quiet will pay the price.

Moreover, Sharon is very popular among the immigrants. In a special poll held last month to choose the "Man of the Year," Sharon came in first - with a 60 percent share of those surveyed - as "having the most positive influence in Israeli life over the past year." In the same survey, Netanyahu, who holds no public office, came in fourth. His mere existence seems to be seen as a positive contribution to the people and society.

A prudent Netanyahu is now allowing the dirty work of criticizing the Sharon government to be performed by others: witness the columns of Bushinsky and Briskin. In so doing, Netanyahu can free himself up to join in the consensus, as he did with the recent launch of the Russian version of a book by his brother, Ido Netanyahu, "Yoni's Last Battle," and the translation of "Letters of Yoni" into Russian.

At a press conference marking the publication of the books last month, reporters expressed a natural interest in the author's late brother. "Is Sharon alike in nature to Yoni?" was one bizarre question. To which Netanyahu replied in his melancholy statesmanlike way: "Sharon achieved a great deal in the defense field, and presented a model for Yoni. But politics is different from military service." Say no more.

Netanyahu is making his way back into the political arena of the immigrant public at a difficult time. Not only because of Sharon's popularity, but mainly because of the changes in the electoral system and the resumption of the old single-vote system. In the last two election campaigns, when the populace voted directly for prime minister, the immigrant parties worked for themselves and also for their preferred prime ministerial candidate. Although the two large immigrant parties are headed by two men - Sharansky and Lieberman - who still maintain close contact with Netanyahu - the resumption of the old single-vote system (in which voters only vote for party lists, and the prime minister is elected in an indirect way) has all at once turned them into his political rivals, competing with him for the same "Russian vote." An internal Yisrael Beiteinu poll indicates that the Likud headed by Netanyahu would steal one more mandate from the party than a Likud headed by Sharon.

"Both of them are friends of mine," Netanyahu declared in an interview with Novosti, referring to Lieberman and Sharon. But when asked if Lieberman was now his political adversary, he offered a glimpse of the future: "No. There will always be margins to the right of the Likud."

Of course, the key word here is "margins." The immigrants don't want to occupy the margins; they want to be part of what they consider the Israeli consensus, to belong to a large body. This helps to explain the impressive increase in the Likud's strength among this public.

Flocking to the Likud

Despite the differences between the various polls, in the past few months, immigrants have been flocking to the Likud. A poll conducted by Dr. Alex Feldman of the Mutagim polling organization found that 25 percent of the immigrant public now supports the Likud, representing more than eight mandates.

Another poll taken by Dr. Mina Tzemach shows a 20 percent level of support for Likud among the immigrants. But her poll also indicates a clear trend of increasing support for the Likud among the immigrants. In the same survey, 15 percent of people who voted for Sharansky's party in the last election reported that they had begun to support the Likud.

All told, 2.5 mandates worth of immigrant votes have moved, according to the Tzemach survey, to the Likud. "The phenomenon is not unique to the immigrants, but it is especially marked among them," says Tzemach. "The public has lined up behind the Russians, not the opposite."

This state of affairs is vexing to the immigrant parties, and very good news for Netanyahu, providing he resumes a leadership position in the Likud.

Still, the number of immigrants who have actually registered as members of the Likud is minuscule, and only about 50 belong to the movement's central committee. When Briskin suggested that Netanyahu call on the immigrants to register as card-carrying members of the Likud, Netanyahu responded that it was a waste of time: He projects that those who are registering now because of Sharon, will be there for him as well, when the time comes. He would be better off, he said, spending the time and effort on building personal relationships.

And Netanyahu is doing precisely that. "I think that every national leader should build his own independent niche in the Russian sector, and not get all tangled up with subcontractors," said Briskin, explaining the strategy. "I am pleased that Bibi shares this view. He is interested in the immigrants not only out of electoral considerations."

Briskin himself is no neophyte to the political arena. In 1989, four years after he immigrated to Israel at the age of 27, he helped set up the Betar movement in Russia from his new base here. Subsequently, he was involved in various areas of education, as well as in matters of interest to the Jewish world. With Netanyahu's election as prime minister in 1996, Briskin landed in the Government Press Office as head of the Russian media communications section. In March 1999, Netanyahu asked him to serve as his adviser on immigration and absorption. The elections were held two months later.

"With all the money that Barak poured into the Russian sector, we felt like we were in a bunker, under nuclear missile attack," Briskin says, recounting those days. Now they may not be in a bunker, but the lessons from the election, in which the immigrants had been considered "locked up" in Netanyahu's corner, have not been forgotten.

Visiting the victims

This time around, even the little gestures are not ignored - for example, the custom of visiting victims of terror among the immigrants. Netanyahu has already paid a visit to an immigrant sharpshooter who was seriously wounded in the invasion of Beit Jala, and is now planning to visit Vitali Binas, the immigrant wounded three weeks ago in a terror attack in Samaria. The fact that he is hospitalized in Hillel Yaffe Hospital will enable Netanyahu to simultaneously visit those injured in the attack at the David's Palace hall in Hadera.

Asked whether all this might come across as somewhat cynical, Briskin produces a ready-made answer: "If you don't visit the wounded, they say you don't care about them; if you do visit, they call it cynical exploitation. I'm familiar with all these responses, especially when it comes to Bibi. But in this dilemma, I opt for doing the humane thing. Bibi, too.

"You could say that with the new electoral system, the candidate shouldn't have to concern himself with the Russian street; it's enough for him to win and then bring the Russian parties into his coalition. But I favor the long-term perspective. You can't lead this state for long without the partnership of this immense community, and it doesn't matter if they vote for your party or for Lieberman and Sharansky. You have to view this community as a long-term strategic partner."

In that spirit, Netanyahu has attended a performance of the Gesher theater, founded by immigrants from the CIS, and met with members of the troupe for a friendly conversation. He held a special session with educators from the immigrant public to hear their opinions and to learn of the troubles they are experiencing in a profession that is of supreme importance to their community. He also held a fascinating conversation with a group of Russian intellectuals who now want to make such encounters a regular event, during which the future candidate will meet every few weeks to discuss issues of importance.

The long-term view does not end with the immigrant public in Israel. It crosses borders and continents and reaches Russia itself. It is highly important, Briskin believes, to learn about the CIS, which many in Israel conceive of as a Third World country. This disparagement of the CIS, which has many interests in the Middle East, is not only a strategic problem; it is also perceived as an insult to the immigrants.

In all probability, Briskin is correct. The past decade has brought about a deep change in the attitude of the immigrants to their mother country. The days of hatred have passed. In a survey of the community at the end of this past year, President Putin was chosen as the second most important and influential international public figure in the world, behind George W. Bush. Given this state of affairs, Netanyahu is also a frequent guest of the Russian TV networks, which are also broadcast in Israel, a fact that empowers his status as an undeniably relevant political personage.

"It is important that he feel in Moscow the way he feels in New York," says Benny Briskin, who is planning a revolution in Netanyahu's identity. "It is important for the State of Israel, but you are correct in saying that it is also important in electoral terms. It comes back to us like a positive boomerang and scores points."

The points will presumably be converted into mandates. Netanyahu estimates that about half the immigrants will vote for Likud in the next election. Even if this is an overestimation, there is no doubt that the political arena of immigrants is now facing a completely new situation.