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Israeli right nips at Kadima

While the moderates are expected to win Tuesday's vote, the right is gaining.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2006


The victor in Tuesday's nationwide parliamentary vote is widely expected to be the Kadima (Forward) Party, representing the legacy of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But the real cliffhanger is how well vote-getters like Avigdor Lieberman will fare.

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Hefty, direct, and assertive, Mr. Lieberman addressed a standing-room only crowd at the municipal theater here recently - a mark of popularity in an election season that many seem to find as appetizing as day-old falafel.

Part of that enthusiasm comes from the fact that he speaks in the mother tongue of most of his supporters: Russian. About 1 in 4 voters in this coastal city is a new immigrant from the former Soviet Union. This polyglot of newcomers, known as "Russim," now make up at least 15 percent of the electorate, compromising one of the most influential voting blocs.

So far, he and his nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) look likely to garner a significant enough chunk of the vote to make him an attractive coalition partner for Kadima, led by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Lieberman has been the season's most avid headline grabber. And if he joins the coalition-to-be, he expects Kadima's platform to bend toward his own. "I think our plan is better than Kadima's," he says. "I cannot understand what could be achieved from Kadima's plan."

By Kadima's plan, he means Mr. Olmert's proposal to carry out an additional set of unilateral withdrawals from occupied land - this time, in the West Bank. Olmert says he would annex major settlement blocks, evacuate many others, and declare Israel's part to end the conflict done, using the controversial security barrier as the de facto demarcation line between Israelis and Palestinians.

While that will not likely be deemed acceptable by any of the other parties involved, Lieberman's plan lurches into more problematic territory.

He says he would transfer to Palestinian control a swath of territory in the Galilee region that is heavily populated with Israel's Arab citizens, and will in turn annex large areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, such as Ariel or Maale Adumim. The subtext is that Lieberman views the nearly 20 percent of Israelis who are Arab as Israel's primary threat.

In Lieberman's plan, any Arabs who wants to remain in Israel will have to move out of the high-concentration areas surrounding the northern city of Umm el-Fahm to another part of the country. He also proposes that they be required to sign a pledge of allegiance to the state by the age of 16, accepting its Zionist principles.

Left-leaning politicians say they're not sure Lieberman's proposals are even legal. More vocal critics regularly call him racist and fascist.

But his views have won solid support among Russian voters. About 35 percent of the Israeli electorate born in the former USSR is expected to vote for him. By comparison, Kadima is expected to get 30 percent of the Russian vote, while the Likud party looks likely to win just 14 percent.

"In my eyes he's the most appropriate politician to be prime minister. His platform really matches my views," says Ksenia Kravitz, a university student who immigrated here from the Urkraine.

Another supporter spells out a common theme: A desire to line up behind a strong personality. "We want a real leader," says Igor Gurevich, who moved here as the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989.

In the past, he voted for a Russian immigrant group that has since merged itself into the Likud party. But the longer the immigrants are here, the less they want to vote for any party that is explicitly ethnic. "I don't want to be in a Russian party," Mr. Gurevich says. "I want an Israeli party, and Lieberman is building that."