Israeli Discontent Fuels New Political Parties

THE notices on the board are in Russian. The newspapers are in Russian. And everyone in the bustling campaign office speaks Russian.

"I never really wanted to get into Israeli politics and be a member of the Knesset [parliament]," explains Natan Sharansky, a Russian Jew who heads the new Movement for Israel and Immigration.

"We will not run as a Russian ethnic group, but as a social movement," Mr. Sharansky told the Monitor in fluent English punctuated with a Russian accent.

As Israel's national elections scheduled for November 1996 draw closer, Sharansky is one of several Israeli leaders who has decided to break away from the traditional parties and test the political climate.

* Leading Likud member David Levy, a former Israeli prime minister, announced June 18 that he was setting up a new political movement whose goals are to advance the living standards of Sephardic (oriental) Jews who emigrated to Israel.

Most Sephardics have voted for the right-wing Likud opposition since the 1977 election on grounds of socioeconomic discrimination at the hands of Ashkenazi Jews of European origin who dominate Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's ruling Labor Party coalition.

Polls say Mr. Levy could win up to five seats in the 120-seat Israeli Knesset.

* Dissident legislators of the ruling Labor Party are forming a "Third Way" movement to oppose Mr. Rabin's plans to return the Golan Heights to Syria.

Polls say the Labor splinter could win up to four seats.

* The Islamic Movement in Israel decided for the first time last month to advise its members to take part in the next election - a move that could consolidate the Arab vote.

Analysts say a consolidated Arab list could win up to 12 or 13 Knesset seats, but it is too early to make predictions.

The fluidity in party politics reflects changing political priorities and public needs as the country moves into an era of peace and a new voting system looms.

The rash of new political groups could easily upset the delicate balance in Israel's coalition politics where ruling parties seldom have an outright majority.

Rabin's ruling Labor coalition rules with a narrow majority of 63 out of 120, which drops to 61 on peace issues, and Rabin often has to rely on the nonaligned Shas Party - a group of ultrareligious Sephardic Jews with five Knesset seats - to prevent his government from falling.

"In the past there was a splintering on the extremes ahead of elections," says political scientist Susan Hatis Rolef, author of the country's premier political dictionary. "Now it is a cluster of breakaways in the middle. I think this indicates that the existing parties don't answer the needs of the new society."

She says the fluidity also reflects the split-vote system that will be used for the first time in the next election. Under this system, voters will be able to vote separately for the prime minister and the political party of their choice.

Party candidates will also be chosen by a system of United States-style primaries for the first time, Rolef says.

Hebrew University political scientist Jon Simons notes that Levy's decision to form a new party indicates that the future struggle for social justice in Israel could be along ethnic rather than national lines.

The move presented a challenge to Binyamin Nethanyahu's Likud Party to put social justice issues on its agenda.

"Once it becomes clear that political - as well as economic - elites have no social conscience, disadvantaged groups will have to organize themselves to defend their interests," Mr. Simons says.

Sharansky's movement could draw ethnic Russian support away from the right-wing Likud Party in a bid to step up the bargaining power of the immigrants.

"Other people call it a Russian party. It is true the majority of people joining are Russian, but it is not a Russian movement," Sharansky insists.

But Sharansky is eager to share his vision of Israel when another 1 million Russian immigrants join the 560,000 already in the country. Russians will then make up nearly 30 percent of the Israeli populace. "There will be changes in the quality of life. We will make the economy more liberal, more efficient, and we will unleash private market forces," he says.

Recent polls indicate his party could win up to three Knesset seats.

Sharansky says 70 percent of Russian immigrants - "the professional elite of the former Soviet Union" - are unable to find employment within their professions.

"There are scientists sweeping the streets," Sharansky says.

He says that the Labor government failed to keep its promises on various development projects for immigrants.

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