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Israel's New Swing Vote

Soviet Jewish immigrants comprise a large voting bloc that in the '92 election could go either to Likud or Labor - or become a separate party

PERHAPS the most important question in Israeli politics today is the effect of the vote of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jewish immigrants - who will immediately be eligible to vote once their names are inscribed on the voting lists - in the November 1992 election. During the struggle for power between Labor and Likud from March to June 1990, the switch of only three parliamentary votes would have meant that Labor rather than Likud would have formed the Israeli government. Consequently, the attitude o f the new voters is critical. They are expected to elect from 12 to 18 members of Israel's 120-person Parliament, depending on whether or not another 300,000 to 400,000 Soviet Jews arrive in 1991 and 1992 to augment the 250,000 who came to Israel from October 1989 to March 1991.

The majority of incoming Soviet Jews could vote for Likud, for Labor, or for their own Soviet Jewish party. There are five arguments for voting for Likud: First, Likud was the party in power when the new wave of Soviet Jews arrived, so the Soviet Jews could be expected to reward Likud for giving them a refuge from the disintegrating Soviet Union after the United States put a 40,000-person annual quota on Soviet Jewish immigrants.

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Second, the hatred toward communism that the vast majority of Soviet Jews feel could extend to Israel's socialist parties, including Labor. Third, most residents of the European parts of the Soviet Union, where the majority of Soviet Jews come from, dislike Soviet Muslims, and this feeling could be transferred by Soviet Jews to Muslim Arabs. Fourth, Soviet Jews - accustomed to living in a large country - might be loath to give up any of "Greater Israel." Finally, Iraq's firing of Scuds into Israel duri n

g the Gulf war may convince them that only a tough policy toward the Arabs will work.

The main reasons why the incoming Soviet Jews may vote for Labor are as follows: First, the Likud government is mangling the absorption process. Infighting between Israel's finance and housing ministers, Yitzhak Moda'i and Ariel Sharon, has prevented the Israeli government from producing housing and jobs. If Labor can provide a viable alternative to Likud's failed resettlement efforts, the Soviet Jews might vote for Labor. Second, the overwhelmingly secular Soviet Jews are bitter about Likud's religious

ally in the coalition government, Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz, who is trying to limit Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel because of the large number of mixed marriages among the immigrants. As one Israeli wryly noted, "Peretz is not interested in more Jews but in pure Jews."

Third, unlike the earlier wave of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel in the 1970s, these Soviet Jews are motivated neither by Zionistic nor by religious concerns. The vast majority would have preferred to come to the US. Consequently, they have no political or religious attachment to Hebron or Nablus and might be willing to give back the occupied territories in return for a peace agreement that would guarantee Israel's security.

Fourth, many of the Soviet Jewish couples come with only one child and might want to achieve a peace settlement so as not to risk their child's life in war. Finally, most of the Soviet Jews are ethnic Ashkenazism of similar class and background to those Israelis who vote for the Labor Party. For these reasons, if the Labor Party can unify its ranks and offer a credible alternative to Likud, it might gain many votes of Soviet Jews.

THE final possibility is that the Soviet Jews will form their own party. While in the past ethnic parties have not done well in Israeli politics, more recently the cases of TAMI (essentially a Moroccan Jewish party that gained three seats in 1981) and Shas (six seats in 1988, drawing from both religious and non-religious Sephardim) show that this possibility cannot be ruled out. The highly intelligent Soviet Jews (this is the most educated and intellectual aliya since the German Jews came to Palestine i n

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the 1930s) are increasingly convinced that the way to find housing and jobs is to play the same political game that Israel's religious parties do. This would mean forming their own party that could be the swing party between Labor and Likud, enabling the Soviet Jews to bargain with each, much as the religious parties currently do.

The natural leader for this party is Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, the well-known Soviet Jewish refusednik who came to Israel in 1986, who has threatened to form a Soviet Jewish party if absorption procedures are not greatly improved. Some Likud members are considering an early election to preempt the chances for any Soviet Jewish party to gain enough votes to seriously threaten Likud.

In the year and a half before the scheduled Israeli election, much could happen to alter the picture presented above. If there is an unexpected breakthrough toward peace, Likud could be the big winner among Soviet Jews. If Prime Minister Shamir takes control of the absorption process himself and solves the problems of housing and jobs, Likud can be expected to gain. Unless Israel is more forthcoming on the peace process (as by prohibiting more settlements in the West Bank and Gaza), it may well jeopardi z

e the economic aid it needs from the US to settle the Soviet Jewish immigrants.

While Israel's serious absorption problems may slow Soviet Jewish emigration to Israel (there were signs of this by April 1991 when only 15,000 of the expected 30,000 Soviet Jewish immigrants came to Israel), and limit the voting potential of Soviet Jews, those Soviet Jews already in Israel may become increasingly embittered against Likud and be a potent factor in the 1992 election.

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