- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

TEL AVIV — They’ve been Israel’s most critical swing voters in elections going back to the early 1990s. Now, on the eve of tomorrow’s vote, the country’s 1 million Russian immigrants are again poised to determine the balance of power in the next parliament.

Hawks on security and mostly secular, Russian immigrants are expected to cast ballots in higher numbers than other Israelis. Pollsters say they could determine 15 percent of the seats in the parliament.

They are thought to be wavering between acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party and Yisrael Beiteinu, a party dominated by Russian immigrants whose leader has advocated ceding control over Israeli Arab towns near the border of the West Bank in return for keeping Jewish settlements.

Although the immigrants were once solidly behind Kadima because of its leader, Ariel Sharon, it is not clear whether they will remain loyal to the comatose prime minister’s political party now that it has passed to the leadership of Mr. Olmert.

That will determine to a large part whether the acting prime minister’s party will dominate the next government or be forced to share power with a strong coalition partner.

“Sharon had a mythic hold on the Russian vote. He created a heroic aura with the help of Russian politicians on the right,” said Arik Elman, a former media adviser to the Yisrael B’Aliya party, the Russian party that was founded by refusenik Natan Sharansky and is now defunct.

“After Sharon passed, it has opened a hole in the political firmament of the Russian voter.”

That firmament leads to Avigdor Lieberman, a former aide to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu who resigned from the Likud Party in 1999 to establish the right-wing immigrant party Yisrael Beiteinu, or “Israel is our home.”

Mr. Lieberman has been the surprise of the campaign, with polls showing his party positioned to double its strength from the current six seats. That would be enough to make him a pivotal broker in postelection coalition talks.

The jockeying has started. Mr. Lieberman has said he won’t join the government if Mr. Olmert goes ahead with his plan to unilaterally withdraw from West Bank settlements, while left-wing parties have said they won’t join a coalition that includes Mr. Lieberman.

“Lieberman is left in the field as the only Russian player, and he plays it well,” Mr. Elman said.

Mr. Lieberman appeals to Russian voters who tend to be highly skeptical about the prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

“In one sense, Lieberman gives an answer to Hamas,” said Roman Yucht, a 27-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet Union. “Hamas respects strong men. That’s what the Arabs understand.”

In past elections, the Russian immigrant vote has been up for grabs as the new Israelis adjusting to the nation’s political system.

In 1992 and 1999, Russians were attracted by former military officers leading the left-of-center Labor Party. But the immigrants voted for Likud in 1996 and 2003 after terrorism overtook peace negotiations.

This year, neither Labor nor Likud are expected to attract significant numbers of Russians.

Labor candidate Amir Peretz is disliked for a series of crippling strikes that were seen as benefiting powerful trade unions rather than laborers. Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is remembered as a relatively weak prime minister, analysts say.

Mr. Lieberman, by contrast, is seen as a credible, straight-talking politician, an image that appeals to a voting bloc disillusioned by the seeming inability of politicians to make good on their promises.

“Immigrants tell you in any survey that they’re disappointed in the system, and that they don’t trust politicians. Lieberman builds his campaign around the issue of credibility,” Mr. Elman said.

“Democracy is a fleeting concept for the average Russian voter. Lieberman is not about mutual understanding. He is about saying things clearly and about holding his ground.”

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