Yisrael Beiteinu activists gathered for the festive convention at the Vida reception hall in Ashdod, marking the conclusion of the election campaign. Addressing the audience, Yehiel Lasri (Likud), the mayor of the hosting city, ceremoniously declared: “Forging an alliance between the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, we have established a political superpower.” At precisely the same time, it was reported on the 8:00 p.m. news that according to an updated public-opinion poll, the “united power” was expected to garner 32 mandates — 10 fewer than the total number each of the two separate parties had in the outgoing Knesset — the 27 Likud mandates plus the 15 mandates of Yisrael Beiteinu.
So what’s wrong here? Or is there nothing really wrong, and everything is working fine for the merged party? To be sure, Likud-Beiteinu is still the largest party and it will be the one invited by the president and assigned the task of forming the government.
The atmosphere among the 600 supporters of the two parties packing the conference hall in Ashdod reflected the inherently complex nature of the recently established joint party of Likud-Beiteinu. The air of festive ceremony on stage was in sharp contrast to the confusion in the audience.
Even the way the supporters and activists were seated in the hall mirrored the flimsiness of the alliance between the two parties. The Likud members sat on white plastic chairs under the numerous flags of Israel adorning the hall on one side, while the members of Yisrael Beiteinu occupied the other — the Hebrew speakers on one side and the Russian speakers apart. Technically together, but actually, each by itself.
“It is as if two electrical wires were connected the wrong way. What would you get? A short circuit. That’s what happened in the merger between the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu,” noted Eliyahu Shwilly, a loyal voter for Yisrael Beiteinu, former foreign minister Avidgor Liberman's party. “Our voters are for the most part Russian immigrants to Israel; their voters are old-timers here.”
Gabriel Attias, one of the Likud supporters attending the conference, agrees in principle with Shwilly, but points out the positive side. “It is to our benefit, as the merger assures us that Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] will continue to lead the government. True, the party has changed, but hopefully it will work out.”
In fact, for a moment there, that night, it seemed to be working fine. When Liberman and Netanyahu entered the hall, one after the other, each of them was received with a warm round of applause by both groups. The feeling of victory in the reception hall in Ashdod overshadowed the skepticism and even the anger.
It is not by chance that Ashdod was selected to host the Likud-Beiteinu conference. The rocket-stricken city, which usually gets media attention only when a military operation is launched in Gaza, has grown and prospered thanks to the immigrants from the former USSR, thus earning the nickname “Little Moscow.” The voting patterns of its inhabitants have rendered it a bastion of the right. However, in the upcoming election, the traditionally right-wing voters among the Russian immigrants, disappointed over their loss of independent representation following the merger of their party with the Likud, will have the opportunity to revert to their earlier voting habits. In the two previous election campaigns — in 1996 and 1999 — they cast a dual ballot. One ballot for Russian Party Yisrael BaAliyah, and the second time around for Yisrael Beiteinu. The other ballot was cast for the prime minister of their choice — Netanyahu in 1996 and Ehud Barak in 1999.
Now, they get Netanyahu and Liberman on a single ticket. The first is still the prime minister preferred by most of them, while the other has been their established leader for years. (It should be noted, though, as already mentioned on this site, that the vote for Liberman is no longer sectarian and has not been so for years.) By the way, this may explain why most of the mandates — far from few, according to the polls — lost by Likud-Beiteinu should be attributed to the defection of former Likud voters rather than to the leakage of a much smaller number of Russian votes.
It may be reasonably assumed that the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, in general, and Shas leader Aryeh Deri, in particular, have had quite a lot to do with the closing of ranks in Yisrael Beiteinu, and should be held accountable for the fact that even those who thought of leaving Yisrael Beiteinu in favor of other parties eventually decided to stay. The offensive statement by Deri, who labeled the Likud a “white” party, as well as the provocative campaign video clip aired by Shas, aroused a sense of stinging insult that acted in favor of Liberman (who is, incidentally, a close friend of Deri). For the benefit of those of our readers who missed seeing the video, it is a particularly blatant clip, featuring a couple standing under a wedding canopy, with a fax machine positioned nearby. The bride, a tall, blonde Russian, is seen speaking with heavy Russian accent, explaining to the dark skinned, undersized bridegroom standing next to her, that she is going to receive soon by fax the certificate confirming her instant conversion to Judaism. The clearly shocked husband-to-be discovers that his bride is not Jewish and recoils in disgust when she bends to kiss him. The video clip, dubbed “Dial Asterisk for Giyur (conversion to Judaism),” has stirred widespread public outrage and severely hurt the feelings of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Soviet Union.
According to assessments, Liberman's party has lost in the current election up to two mandates, previously assured by its Russian voters. The Likud, in turn, has lost more than five mandates — mostly, so it seems, to the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi. The Russian votes drifted away to more diverse destinations. About a third of them wandered off to Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid's party, and another third to the HaBayit HaYehudi headed by Naftali Bennett. Some of the latter have decided to opt for Bennett’s party because of its professed rightist positions, while others have been attracted by the traditional-religious-nationalist nature of the party, which sympathizes with the settlers.
It should be noted in this context that contrary to the manifestly secular image of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, there are quite a few among them who have become believers and adopted the religious way of life. What’s more, it emerges from data collected over the years that most of them seek to preserve the Jewish character of the state. The Labor Party is the choice of a similar portion of the wandering votes among the Russian immigrants, according to a survey conducted by Israeli statistician Mina Zemach.
Some votes — too few to merit any notice — are expected to wander off to the left parties, such as Meretz and Kadima. Once again, the left has failed to mobilize a significant mass of voters from the Russian-speaking community. On the fringes of the center-left parties there are a number of groups of idealistic and committed young people of Russian origin; however, their ideological fervor is not strong enough to be of any real significance. For instance, when Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich and Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On arrived during their campaign tour at the Tel Aviv Fishka club — a social and artistic venue for young Russian-speaking adults — they were warmly welcomed. The young people present there showed real interest in and surprisingly deep knowledge of the ideology and political platform of the two movements. Yet when it comes to voting for one of these parties, that’s another story. In response to my question of whether they attended such meetings with the intention of joining in and casting their vote for either of the two, most of them dismissed the option, noting smilingly: “There is another option; we have simply come here for lack of anything better to do tonight.” All the same, their interest in the messages delivered may translate in the future into a new political mobility for the younger generation of Russian speakers.
Back to the Vida reception hall in Ashdod. The Russian voters are convened there along with their new partners under the flags of Likud-Beiteinu. When Netanyahu makes his entry, he is welcomed by a drumbeat and chanting of “Oh — Oh who's there — it is the next prime minister.”
The Russian speakers look on curiously, but keep silent. They do not join the calls, and it is not for any ideological reason. It is just a different political culture. They are all in agreement, joined in partnership — but even so, these are two distinct parties out there, targeting different audiences — that of the Likud, and that of Yisrael Beiteinu.
Lily Galili was a Haaretz senior feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and an expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union for over 28 years. Her book The million that changed the Middle East (co- authored with R. Bronfman) has been recently published in Hebrew.