Israel's Netanyahu tries to poach 'Russian vote' from old rival

JerusalemUpdated: Mar 01, 2020, 11:20 PM IST

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photograph:(Reuters)

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Israel goes to the polls for the third time in less than a year after deadlocked polls last April and September.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is playing up his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to steal key votes in Monday's election, but analysts are sceptical it will get him over the line.

Israel goes to the polls for the third time in less than a year after deadlocked polls last April and September.

Netanyahu is seeking to woo supporters of former ally Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party who was born in Moldova and whose support base is largely from the former Soviet Union.

Lieberman emerged as kingmaker after last year's elections but ultimately refused to back either Netanyahu or centrist rival Benny Gantz.

The embattled premier is hoping a visit to Moscow and a warm welcome for Putin in Jerusalem earlier this year, along with election material in Russian, will help him gather the 61 seats necessary to form a viable coalition.

But Zeev Khanin, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said Netanyahu's attempts to cosy up to Putin and capture the "Russian vote" were not working.

"The Russian immigrants are Israelis," he said, and while they might be attached to Russian culture, "they don't support Putin or any other Russian politician".

More than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union have migrated to Israel since the 1990s and now account for 12 per cent of the electorate. 

Lieberman's list took 40.2 per cent of the Russian-speaking vote in last April's vote, while Netanyahu's Likud party took 26.7 per cent, according to a study by Khanin.

'Racist diatribes'

Lieberman, a former minister under Netanyahu, has long been a spokesman for the ex-Soviet community in Israel.

He is against state financing for Jewish Talmudic schools and wants immigrants from the former USSR to be able to receive a pension in Israel.

His list won eight of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats last September, including six such immigrants among the top 10 names on its ticket.

It also used campaign material in Russian to reach older immigrants who don't always speak Hebrew.

Alex Grinberg, a political commentator who himself is originally from Russia, said two categories of Russian immigrants voted for Lieberman.

"The older ones who don't understand Hebrew, but above all the youth, who grew up in Israel and feel like second-class citizens," he said. 

Earlier this year, a scandal broke out after Yitzhak Yossef, Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, who is close to the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, said some of the immigrants were "non-Jews, some of them communists" who "hate religion".

Lieberman has refused to join a coalition with Shas and another ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, who are allies of Netanyahu's rightwing Likud.

"The racist diatribes against this (former Soviet) community coming from certain ultra-Orthodox rabbis have provoked a reaction that Lieberman is using in his campaign," Grinberg said.

The Putin factor

Likud has election posters in Russian, and Netanyahu has been playing up his "strong friendship" with the Russian president.

He welcomed Putin in Jerusalem in January, along with other foreign leaders, for the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Red Army's liberation of Auschwitz.

The pair inaugurated a monument commemorating the citizens and defenders of Leningrad during the Nazi siege of the city.

"The blockade (of Leningrad) and the Holocaust are things that can't be compared to anything else," Putin said at the time.

Over 600,000 people starved to death during the siege, including tens of thousands of Jewish residents, some of whom were also in the Soviet military.

Netanyahu also used his relationship with Putin in a case of a US-Israeli woman arrested in Russia last year and jailed for drug trafficking.

Moscow freed her shortly before Netanyahu met Putin at the Kremlin in late January.

But whether all this will be enough to convince voters to abandon Lieberman is anything but certain. 

According to academic Khanin, Yisrael Beiteinu's campaign responds to Lieberman voters' security and social concerns, particularly regarding pensions.

"The core of Lieberman voters will stay faithful to him, despite Netanyahu's efforts," he said.

Political commentator Grinberg was also sceptical. "Russian voters' main political agenda is integration into Israeli society," he said.