Netanyahu Makes Play for Russian Vote Amid Election Concerns

Prime minister faces unprecedented challenge ahead of second early election this year

By Arthur Schwartzman | | Topics: Benjamin Netanyahu, Election
Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Liberman in Hebron several years ago. Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90

Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, was the stone that tipped the scales against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his attempt to form a new governing coalition following the April 9 general election. 

Liberman refused to join Netanyahu unless he adopted the policy of enforcing mandatory military service for all, including the ultra-Orthodox. Due to Liberman’s uncompromising stance, his party has seen a rise in the polls ahead of the upcoming second early election scheduled for September 17. 

But Netanyahu isn’t about to let his rival (an immigrant from the former USSR) gain momentum without a fight, and so has appointed Adv. Ariel Bolstein as special adviser on matters of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, in an effort to bolster his own support from this sector.

Netanyahu tweeted after the appointment that “the immigration from these countries has contributed greatly to Israel’s success in recent decades, but there are many issues that require special treatment, and together we will promote pension solutions, housing and other important issues.” In response to the appointment, Liberman tweeted back: “The prime minister has made a cynical appointment. Today, after the publication of polls showing Yisrael Beiteinu will win 10 seats, he appointed an advisor on former USSR immigrants, and likely tomorrow we’ll hear another announcement – special advisor on matters of polar bears.”

By the end of 2014, the number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel had reached 1.184 million people. When looking at the demographic, we can see that the population isn’t young; about 15% were below 15 years of age, and 20% were above the age of 65. Throughout the years, the number of non-Jewish olim grew so that by the end of 2014, 72% of those arriving from the former USSR (616,000) were Jewish and 27% (231,000) were registered by the Ministry of Interior as being of no religious affiliation. One percent of the olim (12,000) were classified as Christian and others. Today, the numbers are even higher.

Liberman has a very steady base of voters from said population, especially among the elderly immigrants. The rift between Liberman and Netanyahu poses a major risk that the prime minister will again be unable to form a government even if he wins the next election. The prime minister has tried minimizing the threat by calling Liberman a leftist, but that’s not going to work the same as it did with Benny Gantz, head of the Opposition-leading “Blue and White” faction. That’s why Netanyahu has launched a separate campaign targeting the Russian immigrants in hopes of chipping away at Liberman’s voter base. The message from Netanyahu is that Likud created a political revolution by bringing the Mizrahim (Jews of eastern descent) to power, and how it can do the same for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In an interview with Ynet, Bolstein rejected claims of a cynical move by Netanyahu three months before the election, and claimed that Netanyahu has always been the first to care for the Russian immigrants. He did, however, admit that for more than a decade as prime minister, Netanyahu hadn’t taken any practical steps to benefit this sector, but insisted that was due to constant pressure from Liberman. Bolstein himself was once placed in 15th place on Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu list, and now will take an unofficial role in the ranks of the Likud.

The drama surrounding the 2019 elections has revealed Israeli society’s soft underbelly, the struggles and conflicts causing so much division. Whereas our elections once were waged between the right and left, we have now stepped into the arena of religious versus secular. 

Can, or will, the different sectors join hands and help push this locomotive forward, or will the different fractions continue to push and pull each to its own benefit alone? There are still three months till the next election, and we can be sure there will be more name-calling and finger-pointing. 

Will the Russians show loyalty to their representative in the Knesset, or will they shift toward Netanyahu’s promises to solve their problems? As we previously witnessed, polls can be very deceiving and manipulative. We’ll just have to prayerfully wait and see.

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