Russian Candidates Strive to Become Mayors

The coming municipal elections may determine whether Russian politics can survive in Israel. After the collapse of Yisrael Ba'aliya in the Knesset elections and the weakening of the Russian community's parliamentary representation, its last chance of preserving its power is in the local arena.

But the disputes in the Russian community, and the entrance of strong forces like Likud and Shinui that suck-in large segments of Russian activists, may erode the community's proportional force on the local scene as well.

"I'm very pessimistic," says Dr. Alex Feldman, a researcher of public opinion in the new immigrants' community. He predicts a dwindling of Russian representation in the local authorities, now some 180 elected officials.

In a meeting with the Russian media two weeks ago the National Union chairman, Minister Avigdor Lieberman, said that after the municipal elections in October there will be about four mayors from the Russian community. Many politicians doubt this, unless Lieberman included Mark Basin, who has been council head of Bnei Ayish for years, and Simha Yosipov, of the Caucasian community, who was elected mayor of Or Akiva in June.

Only about a quarter of the 100 activists which Yisrael Ba'aliya had in the local authorities are expected to join Lieberman or Shinui. About a quarter of them are expected to join the Likud lists, a quarter will run on independent tickets or on lists supported by other parties. The rest may disappear from political life.

The weakening of the parliamentary representation is perceived by the immigrants as a blow, not only because they feel marginalized in society but because in Israel, the political arena was the only way they could get ahead. Many Russian speakers are still captive of what is called "the Yisrael Ba'aliya mentality," which believes only an authentic immigrant representative can serve their local interests.

But the reality is a fractious Russian political arena, divided and riddled with disputes. Personal animosities divide the activists of Yisrael Ba'aliya and Yisrael Beitenu. Veteran activists of other parties refuse to make way for the new immigrants, even when it is in the party's interests.

Thus, in almost every town and village, no matter how small, there are three to four "Russian" lists vying with each other and threatening to wipe each other off the slate completely, as they did in Jerusalem, or to get very little power each, as they did in Haifa.

Three kinds of lists will contend for the Russian vote in the local elections. "Community" lists, mostly a union of Yisrael Ba'aliya refugees with Lieberman's people; "independent" lists, and "national" lists formed by activists that the Likud would not accept into its own list.

Integrating the immigrants on the Likud's lists is a personal interest of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who wants to fix their affiliation to the Likud and halt their see-saw voting patterns.

A few candidates from the Russian lists will also be running for mayor for the first time. These include Ronen Plut, former Immigration Ministry director for Yisrael Ba'aliya, who will run for Nazereth Ilit for the Likud; Zeev Neiman, formerly of Yisrael Ba'aliya, who will run for Acre on a community list supported by Lieberman; and Leonid Mann, who will run in Kiryat Yam for a community list supported by Lieberman.

A new player in the Russian speakers' municipal arena is the Shinui Party. In about half of the 67 authorities where Shinui is contending in the local elections, it has placed a Russian speaker in one of the leading three places. In Beit Shemesh and Ramla, a Russian speaker was placed at the top of the list for the town council and in Arad, Sergei Buhovsky, who arrived in the latest immigration wave, will vie for mayor for Shinui.

Shinui, which is trying to be an alternative to Labor, attributes great importance to placing new immigrants in its lists. But as in the Likud, veteran functionaries often prevent immigrants from reaching high places on the list.

"I wanted more people from Yisrael Ba'aliya and couldn't do it," says MK Yigal Yasinov, who until recently was in charge of Russians in Shinui's municipal section. "In many places I failed to break the old functionaries' resistance," he said. Yasinov quit his post in the municipal section about a week ago.

"The party's constitution, which prevents adding newly registered members, half of them immigrants, to the lists, enabled the old Shinui to preserve itself," Yasinov said.

Russian activists in Shinui say senior party members have blocked the entrance of Russian candidates who are considered too right wing, for fear they might swing the party to the right. Now they are afraid of the electoral price this policy might exact in the local elections.