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Always a swing vote, Russians deserting Barak for Sharon camp
By Avi Machlis
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 29, 2001
ASHDOD, Israel, Several hundred Russian immigrants have
packed into a gaudy seaside
wedding hall in the port city of Ashdod to hear Ariel Sharon make his pitch
for the premiership.
They wait patiently in their seats for the Likud's prime ministerial
candidate, the subdued mood contrasting
with the urgency of Israel's imminent elections.
Attempts by Likud Knesset member Naomi Blumenthal to rouse the crowd --
in slow, often patronizing
Hebrew -- meet with muted applause. She and others try unsuccessfully to pump
up the atmosphere by repeatedly
reminding the audience that Sharon will be a strong leader.
But when Sharon takes the podium, his charisma slowly wins over even
this quiet audience.
He addresses Russian army veterans soldier to soldier, promises to
revive Israel's national pride and
deterrence and pledges to solve the housing crisis of elderly immigrants.
There is little strongman rhetoric, beyond
his campaign promises not to negotiate with the Palestinians under fire.
What is happening here -- and in similar gatherings across the country
-- could prove pivotal as Sharon
faces incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the Feb. 6 elections.
In the last three elections, voters among the 1 million immigrants from
the former Soviet Union -- about
one-sixth of Israel's population -- have played a decisive role in the
outcome of the elections.
Unlike most Israelis who maintain a strong loyalty to a particular party
or camp, the Russians are known to
be protest voters, backing a new horse each time.
In 1992, they supported Yitzhak Rabin of Labor; in 1996, they shifted to
the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu.
Now, after helping Barak defeat Netanyahu in 1999, they have largely
shifted their allegiance to Sharon.
``The distance is enormous and the Russians are part of the game,"
Hanoch Smith, an Israeli pollster, said,
referring to Sharon's lead in the polls.
Several polls show Sharon with twice as much support as Barak among
Indeed, Sharon has won the endorsement of the two major immigrant
parties, including the one led by
Barak, however, has not written off the Russian vote. He, too, traveled
to Ashdod this week to campaign in
the Russian community.
At the Ashdod rally, Sharon refrains from speaking Russian as he has at
earlier rallies -- some immigrants
have said his Russian comes off as childish. But he impresses the crowd and
draws hearty laughs at least half a
dozen times by correcting his translator.
Finally, he addresses one of the audience's main concerns, promising not
to be manipulated by fervently
Orthodox parties such as Shas.
``Do not believe the rumors," Sharon urges. ``I have seen what they are
publishing, that I will be taken
captive by the haredim. Throughout the years, I always took others captive. I
myself was never taken captive and I
am nobody's hostage. Nobody's."
Despite his double-digit lead over Barak, Sharon is taking nothing for
Blumenthal, who is heading immigrant outreach for the Sharon campaign,
said the party has focused
heavily on teaching immigrants who Sharon is.
``They are definitely impressed by Arik as a model leader," she said,
using his nickname.
``The immigrants take national pride very seriously. They are asking,
'What has happened to our national
pride? Why are we willing to give up all of the elements that connect us to
this land?' The immigrants cannot stand
the defeatism of Barak and his willingness to run after Arafat."
But the crisis with the Palestinians and the peace process is not the
only thing on immigrants' minds.
Largely secular, they generally support a separation of religion and
state and are closely watching to see
which candidate is most likely to court the powerful Shas after the
Part of the immigrants' frustration with Barak is the alliance he made
with Shas and his failure to
implement the civil reforms he promised in his 1999 campaign.
Yet they are equally concerned that Sharon -- who is known for his close
ties to the fervently Orthodox
community -- may be no different.
``I don't trust either of them, and I want to know what the difference
is between Sharon and Barak,
specifically on Shas," said Tatiana Brodetsky, 42, a high-school teacher who
came to the Ashdod rally and was
quickly turned off by the tough talk preceding Sharon's arrival.
Yet Sharon certainly seems to be investing much more effort in the
Russian community than is Barak,
Barak ads in the Russian press are few, she said, while Sharon has
blanketed the Russian press with
advertisements, and Sharon operatives are working immigrant neighborhoods far
more thoroughly than is Barak's
Roman Bronfman, a former member of Sharansky's Yisrael Ba'Aliyah
immigrant party who now supports
Barak, admits that Barak is at a disadvantage on several fronts.
``Among the immigrants there is an advantage for nationalist leaders,"
said Bronfman, who now heads the
splinter Democratic Choice party.
``But they are also very disappointed on the economic front and the
issues of religion and state."
At the same time, Bronfman is frustrated that some of the more
controversial elements of Sharon's past are
not being discussed in the Russian press.
``The immigrants do not know much about Sharon's record," said Bronfman,
referring to the 1982 invasion
of Lebanon that Sharon initiated as defense minister and his indirect
responsibility for the massacre of hundreds of
Palestinians by Israel's Lebanese Christian militia allies.
``There simply is no public debate."
Furthermore, Bronfman added, recent controversial remarks by 1970s
immigrant Avigdor Lieberman,
leader of the right-wing immigrant party, Israel, Our Home, who advocated
bombing targets in the Muslim and Arab
world if regional fighting persists, were not covered in leading Russian
At the Ashdod rally, Sharon was flanked by Lieberman and Sharansky, who
support his candidacy.
At the rally, some participants admit that they know nothing about
Sharon's record in Lebanon. Even those
who do -- like Oleg Kolchinsky, a 44-year-old worker at a high-tech plant who
immigrated from Ukraine less than
two years ago -- say it may not affect their support for Sharon.
``I had some sympathy for Barak, but after the events of October and
November something snapped," he
says, referring to the violent conflict with the Palestinians.
``Sharon is a very strong man, and our enemies will listen to him. They
will know that if Sharon is the
leader, they cannot ignore us.''
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.