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Russians Key to Israeli Election

May 8, 1999

ASHDOD, Israel (AP) _ Working amid an array of decidedly non-kosher Russian treats like salt-cured pork and long strips of bacon, delicatessen clerk Vita Levin has something more to savor: her status as one of Israel’s most sought-after voters.

Heading into the home stretch of campaigning for Israel’s May 17 elections, Levin’s leanings _ and those of Israel’s nearly 1 million Russian immigrants _ are seen as the decisive factor in an ever-tightening race for prime minister.

For the Russians, it’s a sweet moment. Over the course of an enormous Jewish exodus from the former Soviet Union in the decade since the collapse of communism, many of the new arrivals to Israel have felt scorned, patronized and misunderstood.

Now, as one-sixth of the country’s electorate, they hope their pivotal role in the elections will serve as a springboard to greater social and political clout _ and the respect many feel is long overdue.

``The only way to make our voices heard was to get involved in politics,″ said Vladimir Gershov, a Ukrainian immigrant and deputy mayor in the southern port of Ashdod, where nearly 1 in 3 residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union _ the highest proportion in any Israeli city.

At an all-Russian mall in Ashdod _ where Cyrillic-lettered signs proclaim the presence of Russian travel agencies, jewelers, drugstores and realtors _ Levin, the deli clerk, lounged a few moments in the spring sunshine to take a cigarette break and talk politics.

Reflecting what pollsters are describing as an erosion of once-overwhelming support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among Russian immigrants, Levin and a surprising number of others interviewed said they were leaning toward Netanyahu’s principal challenger, Ehud Barak of the Labor Party.

``I like his style,″ Levin said, narrowing her eyes against the smoke as sun gleamed on henna-reddened hair. ``And I think he’d do more to help the Russians.″

``I’ll vote for Barak,″ chimed in customer Mikhail Jelizniak, a 60-year-old fellow immigrant. ``Netanyahu hasn’t done much. Someone else can have a chance now.″

Because polls indicate up to one-fifth of Russian voters remain undecided, figuring out what will appeal to them has become a matter of urgent interest to the candidates.

Both sides are assiduously courting Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who now leads an immigrants’ rights party. He’s a member of Netanyahu’s Cabinet _ but he hasn’t given his boss an endorsement.

When Russian feathers are ruffled, candidates rush to do damage control. Barak released his first round of Hebrew-language campaign advertisements without Russian subtitles, and commentators quickly seized on this faux pas. By the very next night, the subtitles had been added.

A far more serious blunder came from Netanyahu’s interior minister, Eli Suissa. In ads for his ultra-religious Shas party, Suissa _ whose ministry is the powerful gatekeeper of immigration to Israel _ pledged to keep out ``forgers, cheats and call girls″ from the former Soviet Union.

The remark enraged Russians who feel tainted by the stereotype of universal involvement in organized crime and prostitution, and Netanyahu hauled Suissa before the TV cameras to apologize. Also present was Sharansky, who listened, accepted the apology _ then repeated the Russian demand for control of the ministry.

The flap, and the way the Russians reacted to it, illuminates some of the fundamental ways in which they differ from Israel’s other mass waves of immigrants.

Israel’s traditional attitude toward new arrivals could be summed up as a brusque admonition: Tough it out. Over the years, immigrants have done just that _ particularly Sephardim, or Middle Eastern-descended Jews, who mainly arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, enduring often humiliating conditions. Many feel downtrodden to this day by Israel’s European-descended Ashkenazi elite.

The Russians encountered their share of difficulties too, particularly during the early days of their immigration wave, when stories of eminent Russian doctors, scientists and musicians working as housepainters or window washers were commonplace.

Instances of discrimination and ill-treatment still strike a powerful chord in the Russian community, such as last year’s stabbing death of a young immigrant soldier in an altercation that broke out over him speaking Russian in public with a friend, or the death in Lebanon of another Russian immigrant soldier whose family was then found to be living in abject poverty.

But over time, as their numbers have grown, many Russians have made it clear they intend to take life in Israel on their own terms. They watch Russian TV, read Russian-language newspapers, eat the foods they remember from home.

The presence in Russian-dominated areas of shops like the one where Levin works _ bursting with pork products whose consumption is forbidden under Jewish law _ rankles Israel’s ultra-Orthodox establishment, but pleases customers.

``People like these things,″ said Levin with a shrug in the direction of a rack of pink shrink-wrapped hams. ``It’s what we’re used to _ we miss it.″

The Russians are proving themselves a canny voting bloc _ but a quirky one.

The headway being made by Barak defies conventional political wisdom holding that Russians _ as a result of experiences under Soviet communism _ harbor a distaste for leftist parties and are made uneasy by military men. Barak leads the left-leaning Labor Party and is Israel’s most-decorated soldier.

Yaacov Roi, a Tel Aviv University academic who studies the Russian community, cites traditional Russian nationalism and abhorrence for ceding land as having boosted Netanyahu’s showing among the Russians in 1996 elections.

Then, as now, the prime minister campaigned against Palestinian statehood. This time around, however, interviews with Russians tend to reflect the widely held Israeli view that some form of autonomy for the Palestinians is inevitable, and negotiation is the best course.

``We suffered enough in our lives _ peace is the most important thing,″ said Lyuba Linshitz, a retired engineer. ``We want to enjoy ourselves, the time we have left, and not have constant fighting.″

Another factor might best be described as snob appeal. In politics, as in life, the ultimate Russian epithet is ``nyekulturniy″ _ loutish, uncultivated. So Barak, in campaign appearances and ads aimed at Russians, has been careful to stress academic achievements and artistic interests _ a strategy that appears to be paying off.

``He’s a cultured man _ he has advanced degrees, and he plays the piano,″ deli patron Jelizniak noted approvingly. ``That’s very important.″

Netanyahu, on the other hand, has been courting Sephardic voters by trading on their sense of grievance against the elite _ a tactic that could backfire among Russians who like to consider themselves a part of it.

Whoever wins, the Russians have made it clear they will extract political concessions commensurate with their numbers. But they might well keep the pundits _ and the candidates _ guessing until the very last minute.

Irit Stravinsky, a vivacious 18-year-old from Belarus, said she would definitely vote _ ``It’s my duty, just like going into the army″ _ but still hadn’t decided who to support.

``I’ll decide,″ she said mischievously, ``on my way into the voting booth.″

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