Russian Immigrants Find a Voice In Israel's New Parliament

Azar and Sabina Pekar, a Russian immigrant couple who arrived in Israel in 1990, felt empowered as they went to the polls in Israel's first direct elections Wednesday.

But even in their wildest dreams they did not anticipate that Natan Sharansky's predominantly Russian immigrant party, Israel Be'aliya, would win seven seats in the 120-seat parliament (Knesset).

Mr. Sharansky is now assured of being a kingmaker in the political horse-trading to form a ruling coalition and is virtually assured of a ministerial post in the new Israeli Cabinet.

Like most Russian immigrants, who have never before had a voice in Israel's parliament, the Pekars knew exactly how they were going to vote: for Sharansky's immigrant party in the parliamentary elections and for right-wing Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu for prime minister.

"It will be the first time in history that we will have our own voice in the Knesset to represent the interests of the new immigrants," says Mr. Pekar as he prepares to leave his modest apartment in the Jerusalem settlement of Gilo.

Labor's love lost

The Pekars are pensioners who have all but given up hope of owning an apartment. They share the collective hurt of Russian immigrants at being stereotyped as thieves and prostitutes in the Israeli media and say that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's ruling Labor Party has failed to attend to their grievances.

They also reject Mr. Peres's haste in making peace with the Palestinians and Arab neighbors. "I consider Peres to be giving too much territory away to the Arabs," Pekar says, referring to the transfer of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians and plans to hand over the Golan Heights to Syria.

Professionals unemployed

Israel's 700,000 or so immigrants include a high proportion of scientists, teachers, doctors, and artists. But many have been unable to find employment in their professions. They are angry that the ruling Labor Party has not sounded more sympathetic.

"Official attitudes to new immigrants changed only during Labor's election campaign," Pekar says.

"Only in the past few weeks did Labor party politicians acknowledge that the immigrants had changed Israel for the better and contributed to the country's economic growth," he says.

"But it is too late," he adds.

Mrs. Pekar says that support for Sharansky had grown phenomenally since the formation of his party a year ago. "We must have someone to speak directly for us in the Knesset. Maybe it will help, maybe not. But it will increase our influence and restore our dignity," she says, adding that she saw the party not as isolating Russian immigrants but creating a vehicle to integrate them into Israeli society.

Michael Feinberg, another Russian immigrant, says that Peres was too hasty in accommodating Arab states. "To achieve peace there need to be concessions from both sides," he says.

Vladimir Kiselev, another Russian immigrant, says Netanyahu could not be any worse than Peres for Russians. "Bibi [Netanyahu ] is a new person, and he will make new things," Mr. Kiselev says.

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