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The ‘outsiders’ who make up the mass right-wing vote

Avigdor Lieberman, most attractive leader for Russian immigants. Photo by Tess Scheflan

‘Russian vote’ in Israel integrates into political mainstream

Russian-speaking immigrants say they are shaped both by their Soviet heritage and their present lives as Israelis

Harriet Sherwood,
January 18/19 2013

At a large supermarket in the coastal city of Ashdod, where more than 50 brands of vodka are available alongside pork chops, bacon, sausages and ham, Arthur Rosen, who came to Israel from Ukraine as a teenager, reflects on the drawbacks of democracy.

“The problem with Netanyahu is that he doesn’t have enough power. [Israel] is a democracy, which means everyone says what they want,” he says, specifically citing two Israeli-Arab members of parliament, Haneen Zoabi and Ahmed Tibi. “Everyone speaks, and that’s not good. I prefer the Russian system where Putin has much more power.”

Rosen, 34, is one of more than a million citizens of Israel who emigrated from Russia, Ukraine and other countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago. Comprising about 15% of eligible voters, Israel’s Russian-speaking community is a powerful constituency in next week’s general election.

Like many of those who came to Israel as youngsters, Rosen identifies himself as Israeli. “I’ve spent half my life here, and my children were born here.” He plans to vote for the electoral alliance between the rightwing parties of Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, known as Likud-Beiteinu, citing “strength” as the defining factor.

His views are echoed by Abigail Kold, 31, who came from Russia 13 years ago. “I was a child under communism. People were afraid of the government,” she says. The Israeli left is more socialist than communist “but it’s all utopia. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” She, too, intends to vote for Likud-Beiteinu.

Many new immigrants from the former Soviet Union settled in Russian-speaking enclaves, where the language, food and culture were familiar. The city of Ashdod doubled in size in a decade.

Some found themselves marginalised in the early days, consigned to low-paid and low-status jobs, and with doubts cast over their Jewishness. Israel granted citizenship to anyone from the former Soviet Union with a Jewish parent or grandparent, or who was married to someone meeting those criteria, rather than the strict matrilineal descent required by Jewish orthodox law.

According to Israel’s central bureau of statistics, about 30% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s were not considered Jewish under orthodox law, a figure that rose to 59% in 2005. Only a small proportion have formally converted to Judaism.

But their impact on Israeli politics has been marked. The rise of Lieberman, the ultra-nationalist former foreign minister, himself an immigrant from Moldova, is attributed to solid support among the Russian-speaking community for his uncompromising rightwing agenda: opposing concessions to the Palestinians, supporting settlements and seeking to curb the rights of Israel’s Arab population.

According to Ze’ev Khanin, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities, the “Russian vote” accounts for about 20 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Conservative estimates suggest 50%-60% will vote for Likud-Beiteinu on Tuesday, he says.

But, he adds, they are more integrated than ever before. “The Russian-speaking community is identifiable, but it is part of the Israeli collective. The second generation is much more influenced by its Israeli experience than its Soviet past.” They are less interested in political parties devoted to “Russian issues” and more attracted to mainstream, albeit rightwing, parties.

Vladimir Dzyakevich, who came to Israel from Moscow at the age of 10, says many in the community are shaped both by their Russian heritage and their present lives as Israelis. “Their ideology is shaped there, but their sense of reality is shaped here.”

Now 32, the part-time biologist and part-time actor in Ashdod’s Russian Theatre says the Russian-speaking community tends to be attracted to strong leaders. In times of uncertainty, “you look for someone who will bring order. Democracy is a costly way to run a country – sometimes you have to stop talking and just do things”.

Dzyakevich, who has always voted for a mainstream party in the past, this time plans to back the tiny Eretz Hadasha, an anti-corruption party. “Israel has become a place where rich people rule. Almost every politician is supported by a rich guy. We have to break it up.”

Some in the community “are culturally really Russian and live in a ghetto. Others forget they are Russian. I’m somewhere in the middle – I don’t forget my heritage, but I feel part of this country.”

Just as in any community, he says, there is a spectrum of political opinion, and he is at the liberal end of it. “Russians don’t vote like goats,” he adds with a smile.

Why Russian Israelis vote right

By Yevgeny Kanevsky, BBC Russian Service
January 18, 2013

Israel’s million-strong Russian-speaking community has become one of the most influential political forces in the country – and their vote could be decisive in next week’s Knesset elections.

The community is important not just because it makes up 20% of the country’s population.

In recent years, it has backed the election winners, who have been right-wing or right-of-centre candidates.

The party that has recently drawn the larger part of the Russian vote has been Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home). It is expected to do so again on 22 January.

Led by Avigdor Lieberman, the party is running on a joint ticket with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

Mr Lieberman resigned as foreign minister in December to face charges of breach of trust.

Security is personal
“The army has to provide security,” says mathematics teacher Boris Manor, one of Yisrael Beitenu’s Russian-speaking supporters.

The problems of security are very personal for Mr Manor. Home is in Ashkelon in southern Israel, a city that was hit by missiles in the last war with Hamas, and just an hour before he spoke to the BBC, he saw off his 18-year-old daughter as she left for military service.

“If a rocket lands, the government must react swiftly, and not just meet on a weekly basis to discuss the next steps,” he continues. “We cannot tolerate this shelling – no other state in the world would allow it. We need to be stricter.”

Yisrael Beitenu’s programme puts things in an even more straightforward way. The party is strongly opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians, and it defines the conflict in the Middle East not just as war for the land, but as a standoff between nations that are hostile to each other in religious terms, views on the world, language and people’s aspirations.

It wants to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and exchange them for land in Israel where Arab Israelis live. And it stresses that Jerusalem, a city with a current Muslim population of about 280,000, “will always be the undivided capital of Israel”.

Such slogans, of course, are supported not just by the Russian-speaking Israelis. Most of the country’s population is disillusioned with any peace process – and the current government coalition is widely expected to remain in power.

According to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, some 28% people think that Mr Lieberman is capable of handling the security situation well. On that issue he comes second only to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is trusted on security by 53% of Israelis, according to the same poll.

‘Winning combination’
Israeli journalist Lily Galili, who has just published a book about Russian-speaking Israelis called The One Million That Changed The Middle East, explains that the newcomers from the former USSR have a “winning combination” of being right-wing and not religious.

And in Israel, where faith and secularism are very often in conflict, that ideology turns out to be very attractive.

“They come from this huge empire to this tiny Israel and they say: “Is that all, is that the country? And what, you want to give back the territories? Who gives up territory in the first place! And in this small country. You must be kidding!””

Many Russian-speaking Israelis explain that the hardships they had to endured in the USSR and during the Soviet collapse have made them suspicious of left-wing politics and more conservative.

According to Russian-speaking Israeli analyst Igor Khlopitsky, the desire for quick and effective measures comes from political and economic chaos of the early 1990s.

“Those who came after Perestroika had the Soviet mentality beaten out of them by the very difficult problems of the time. And where some other Israelis see the possibilities for discussion and dialogue, they just want to solve the problems swiftly.”

And the tragic and traumatic events of the World War II make the community’s older generation keen to avoid war at any cost, adds Mr Khlopitsky.

“First and foremost what we want in Israel is peace and clear sky”, agrees Grigory Manoilenko, grandfather of Coral, a newly drafted Israeli conscript.

So far, most Russian-speaking Israelis have voted for right-wingers who are opposed to any compromises with the Palestinians and may suggest easy solutions for difficult problems. More widely, with the peace process at a standstill and Iran seen as an ever present threat, the right in Israel is resurgent.

But the children of Soviet immigrants, who often speak Russian with a distinct Israeli accent, are not very different from their counterparts from other Israeli communities and are expected to vote along different lines and be concerned with different issues, such as the economy.

This election might demonstrate just how distinctive the new generation’s voice has become.

The left in Israel is its own worst enemy

Elitist, splintered, myopic and Eurocentric – small wonder the centre-left has contributed to the rise of the Israeli right

Rachel Shabi, Guardian
January 21, 2013

The Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, left, with the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta. Barak was Israel’s prime minister during the Camp David peace talks with the Palestinians in 2000. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Israelis have rarely seemed so despondent. During a recent trip ahead of the impending elections, the popular sentiment I kept hearing was of Israel as a country that screws its citizens. There’s a paucity of hope, a frustrated paralysis over corruption, cronyism and ego-driven politics. Nobody believes voting will change anything. Sadly, some Israelis told me their best case scenario was that their children emigrate.

Israel is expected to elect the most rightwing government in its history on Tuesday – a coalition that will make the current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, look like a man of peace.

His Likud party is running ever more extreme candidates and is outflanked to the right by Jewish Home, a rapidly rising, Palestine-denying, new settlers’ party that is predicted to play a key role in coalition. But alongside the headlines heralding a rightward lurch, voter turnout is expected to plunge. That has prompted ubiquitous, state-sponsored commercials with the tagline: “Vote now; moan later.”

Low motivation is highest among centre-left voters. Endemic levels of misery and apathy are tied to a popular conviction that Israeli politicians of all stripes will continue to serve an elite while ignoring everybody else, except to expose the wider population to constant fear and endless war.

The increasingly splintered centre and left parties are predicted to win up to 57 out of 120 Knesset seats. That sounds good, but no one party will have significant clout on its own, and they don’t seem able to agree enough to form a strong, combined force (some of these left and centre parties might even join Bibi’s coalition).

As the nation’s mood seems to slide ever rightwards, polls still show majority support for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. And the mass social movement of 2011, a united cry against the nation’s crippling neoliberal economics, brought 500,000 of the nation’s 8 million on to the streets – the largest protests in Israel’s history. How is it possible, in this context, for the left to be so powerless in politics?

The straight answer is that the Israeli left has never really been leftwing. Labour has long been the elite, establishment party, dominated by Jews of European origin who monopolised power and discriminated against Jewish communities from Muslim and Arab countries (labelled “Mizrahi” or “Eastern”). Such discrimination – the lopsided allocation of resources, such as land or education; the cultural negation – was so bad that ethnicity is now too often synonymous with class.

In the late 1970s, the rightwing Likud exploited this to win a landslide victory. Its leader at the time, Menachem Begin, toured city slums and peripheral towns proclaiming his party would never dishonour or deprive the majority Mizrahi population like Labour did. The wealth gap widened under Likud’s naked capitalism, but mistrust of a condescending, Eurocentric left wing still holds sway – especially as ethnic discrimination remains an unacknowledged divide.

In a new documentary about the left, which recently aired on Israeli TV, the Iraqi-born Israeli author Sami Michael explains this crucial, myopic contradiction within the pro-peace left: “They see [Mizrahis] as a danger, because we bring Arab culture, enemy culture which the Israeli left hates,” he says. “It’s nice for them to be photographed with Arabs, to say that they have Arab friends, that they want peace. But peace with whom? First of all make peace with your own people!”

But the Israeli left can’t make peace with the Palestinians, either – not even with the Palestinians who make up 20% of Israel’s population, but are second-class citizens because of systemic discrimination. No Israeli government has included Arab political parties. Even in 1999, after gaining 94% of the Palestinian vote in Israel, Labour snubbed this sector and built a coalition without even a token Arab party. When peace talks with Palestinians at Camp David failed, the then Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak, proclaimed that Israel had “no partner for peace” – a cowardly own goal that kicked away a political foundation-stone.

“This is what made the right wing stronger,” says Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, leader of Daam, the Jewish-Arab workers’ party. Although unlikely to gain a Knesset seat, she has gained many column inches for her fresh, charismatic socialism. “The Israeli left has no future without the Arabs, and the right will stay in power for ever,” she says.

Therein lies another problem with the Israeli left: it doesn’t really do equality. As Sami Michael (who is also president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel) points out in the TV documentary, this should be the starting point of any leftwing party. While the right dominates identity politics with its ultra-patriotic Jewish nationalism, the supposed left can’t provide a more inclusive, democratic alternative.

As Anat Saragusti, director of the social change communications centre Agenda explains: “My Israeli nationality is much larger and broader than my Jewish nationality. I have more in common with Arab citizens of Israel than with Jews in Guatemala or New York.” A truly leftwing party would rise above the choking patriotism test of Jewish ethnocentrism and find a better alternative.

This failure to support an inclusive Israeli identity in part explains the factionalism that typifies Israeli left politics – without binding progressive ideals, every party has its pet issues to peddle. Ahead of this election, the Israeli centre-left sub-split into a baffling number of atomised parties – now including Labour, Kadima, Hatnuah, Meretz, Yesh Atid – which then polluted media coverage with childish squabbles about who wants to join whose gang. Small wonder that centre-left Israelis can’t be bothered to vote.

However abhorrent, the far-right of “greater Israel”, ultra-nationalism, no Palestine and pure neoliberalism is, at least, ideologically true to itself – which brings continuity and political traction. As long as the scattered Israeli left can’t be properly leftwing, its hard to see the point of it – much less it having any meaningful success at the polls.

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