Russian Jews Play Israeli Kingmakers

Disaffected immigrants are finding their political voice

The Russians have landed in Israel, but many of them haven't settled in well. And for the first time, the voice of their discontent will resonate strongly in the May 29 election.

The 600,000 Russian Jews who have arrived in Israel since the Soviet Union's breakup - many of them academics, scientists, and musicians - have bolstered its economy and culture.

But by some counts 70 percent of the most recent arrivals haven't found jobs. And transitional housing is in short supply.

One man wants to help. Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky once languished in a gulag. But now he's turned a one-year-old social movement called Israel Be'aliya into the political voice of the Russian Jews.

Polls predict that Israel Be'aliya - which means both "Israel on the Way Up" and "Israel with Immigrants" in Hebrew - will win four to six seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. This would ensure Mr. Sharansky a place in the Cabinet and mark the first time Russian immigrants have gained an independent voice in the Knesset.

But Sharansky's real shot at power-politicking may come soon after the election, when the new prime minister attempts to cobble together a government. A tight margin in the polls means that smaller parties like Israel Be'aliya will play crucial roles in the coalition-brokering.

The 450,000 expected Russian voters make up nearly 10 percent of the Israeli electorate. So both Shimon Peres, the current prime minister and Labor Party leader, and Binyamin Netanyahu, the conservative Likud Party candidate, are courting Sharansky's supporters. And Labor and Likud officials concede he is making inroads into their Russian support.

Sharansky, who has made no secret that he leans heavily toward Mr. Netanyahu, has stopped short of formally endorsing either of the prime ministerial candidates. But he has also made it clear that he will deal with whoever wins the contest to increase the political leverage of the Rus sian immigrants.

Recent surveys suggest that 40 percent of the Russians will support Sharansky's party in the parliamentary vote. The Labor and Likud parties stand to pick up around 20 percent of the Russian vote each.

It is less clear how the Russian vote will divide in the race for prime minister. Polls indicate that Israel Be'aliya voters are evenly split over whether to vote for Mr. Peres or Netanyahu, but many have not yet made up their minds.

The paradox of members of an oppressed minority in the former Soviet Union voting for the hard-line Likud leader is explained by Israeli Russian journalist Sergei Makarov, who immigrated to Israel in 1990. "When you come from a sealed tin like the former Soviet Union, you don't know what to do, so you look for something strong to cling to," says Makarov who publishes a digest of the Russian press in Israel. "It's like a herd of cattle that is suddenly released from its pen and doesn't know where to go."

But many Russians here seem clear on one thing - that the government should be doing more to help their transition into Israeli life. Furthermore, many Russians are irked by the Israeli media's stereotyping of them as prostitutes and mafiosos.

Avraham Burg, director of the Jewish Agency that oversees the recruitment and immigration of diaspora Jews to Israel, defends the Russians' role in Israel and says there are an estimated 1 million Russian Jews who still want to immigrate to Israel. "The Russian immigration is the single most fantastic gift ever given to the state of Israel," he says.

Indeed, the Israeli media frequently publish accounts of breakthroughs by Russian scientists in Israel whose inventions that have earned the country hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign exchange.

But while Russian supporters of Labor are more concerned with social and economic issues, those drawn to Likud are more preoccupied with ideological issues and opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Shmuel Zielber, Likud's information chief for new immigrants, welcomes their support and hopes the new arrivals' primary focus will be Israel's survival. As he sees it, many former Russians "are on the right of Israeli politics because they see that as the best option for defending Israeli rights as a small country surrounded by totalitarian Arab regimes."

"Russians will have to chose between Peres's new Middle East, which implies the end of the Zionist era and the beginning of the end of the Jewish state, and Netanyahu's post-industrialist society," he says.

But analysts have their eyes glued to Sharansky, the man who argued for Jews' freedom in Russia and who gained his freedom in a dramatic 1986 spy swap. Only recently has he jumped onto the center stage of Israeli politics.

"Ten years ago I was a hero, and I was liked by everybody," Sharansky said recently. "But today I am being viewed as another dirty politician coming to ask for their votes."

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