Israeli Poll May Ride On Voters From Russia

Soviet Jews, irked over a lack of jobs and housing, lean toward Labor over the Likud

AS the political jingle introducing the TV ad fades away, Yitzhak Shamir looks into the camera, smiles, and launches into his pitch.

"Dobry vyecher," the Israeli prime minister begins.

That's not Hebrew for "good evening," it's Russian, and Mr. Shamir is bidding for votes among transplanted Jews from the former Soviet Union, whom many analysts believe could tip the balance in the June 23 elections.

The polls suggest that Shamir's Likud Party faces an uphill task, and that the opposition Labor Party enjoys a 4 to 1 advantage among immigrants. But many have still not made up their minds.

The flood of 420,000 Jewish immigrants over the past two and a half years has begun to change the Israeli social landscape. And with 270,000 of them eligible to vote, they could change the political landscape too: They have the potential to elect 12 of the 120 seats in parliament.

The latest opinion poll gives Labor 44 percent of the Russian vote, against just 11 per cent for Likud, and if 60 per cent of the Russians cast a ballot, that would give an extra four seats to Labor over Likud. In an election as close as this one is expected to be, that could be a crucial margin.

This is bad news for the ruling Likud Party, since frustration over the government's failure to carry out their swift absorption into Israeli society is widespread among the immigrants. With housing expensive and jobs hard to find, "Russian voters are naturally inclined toward Labor because they are frustrated, and Labor is the opposition," says Eduard Kuznetzov, editor of the independent Russian language daily "Vremya."

The Labor Party has been quick to capitalize on this frustration. Talking to a group of Russian immigrants this week in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin recalled how as prime minister 17 years ago he gave every immigrant a 90 percent mortgage whose repayments were not even tied to inflation.

Labor also relies on its organizational strength, through the Histadrut trade union confederation it controls and its party branches, each of which has an official concerned with immigrant affairs.

Likud organizers acknowledge that they are at a disadvantage. "The trend [among the Russians] is toward Labor, and all we can do is try to limit it," says Michael Kleiner, leader of his party's campaign among the immigrants.

Conceding that "we cannot convince [the new immigrants] that absorption is a success," Mr. Kleiner is instead hoping to persuade them to vote on other issues.

"We try to persuade them to vote as they feel as Israelis," he explains. "Most of them are in favor of capitalism and against giving away the [occupied] territories, yet they are for Labor just because they want a change. Perhaps we can convince them that their attitude to the territories is more important than absorption."

His chances of doing so are not high, according to other observers familiar with the Russians' thinking.

Influencing their decisions, says Aharon Fein, director of Tatzpit, a polling organization that surveys the immigrants, "are mainly factors related to the absorption process; jobs first of all, then housing and their general standard of living. They are not so concerned about the peace process."

Such attitudes have been expected to benefit the three small parties formed by new immigrants. But recent polls suggest even the most well known party, DA, will not win the 1.5 percent of the total vote needed to earn a seat in parliament. DA has suffered from a lack of funds and a lack of cohesion in the Russian community, says Mr. Kuznetzov.

"Most of the newcomers were obedient Soviet citizens," he argues, "and to be a Soviet citizen is to be atomized, dispersed, to mistrust one another." On top of that, points out Mr. Fein, the pollster, "the longer people are in the country, the less they are interested in an immigrant party," and the more they decide only big, established parties can solve their problems.

How many of the Russians eligible to vote will actually go to the polls is still not clear. Campaigners among them from all parties suspect that a significant number will not vote because they do not feel they understand the issues well enough.

"I know Gorbachev and I know Yeltsin," says Irina, a hairdresser in the port town of Haifa, who arrived in Israel 18 months ago. "But I don't understand what I don't understand, and here I am not going to vote."

Others may be unable to vote because the Interior Ministry has not kept close enough track of their movements and will not be able to tell them where to vote. Labor is worried enough about the ministry's performance to have set up a special toll-free number giving any voter information on his or her polling station.

But as DA has faded, so too have early hopes among immigrant activists that they might hold a critical seat or two with which to bargain their way into a coalition.

And though both Likud and Labor have paid lip service to the need for more immigration and greater efforts to help those already here, immigrant leader Natan Sharansky complained in an open letter that "the issues of aliyah [immigration] and absorption have been entirely avoided by both major parties."

"The choice is not between good and bad," sighs editor Kuznetzov. "But between bad and terrible."

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