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Israel's swing voters, 'Russians,' push issue of citizenship to fore

Immigrants from many former Soviet lands have power to boost any

A daughter leaves Russia to join her father in the Promised Land, but Israel's Ministry of Interior refuses to believe they're related. An elderly woman who's dreamed of moving here is accused of faking Jewish ancestry. A Russian immigrant serves in the army - but his non-Jewish mother is deported.

These are the stories that immigrants from the former Soviet Union are reminded of in televised campaign spots for Israel B'Aliya, the main Israeli immigrant party, led by Natan Sharansky.

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The ads, mostly in Russian with Hebrew subtitles, spell out the party's No. 1 goal in no uncertain terms: "Shas Kontrol - Nyet." "No" to continued control of the Interior Ministry by Shas, a religious fundamentalist party that represents Jews of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, origin.

In the next Israeli government, to be chosen Monday, Israel B'Aliya wants to be in charge of the powerful Interior Ministry. And as the potential representative of some 14 percent of the electorate, the party looks sure to get what it wants in return for joining a government coalition.

But by pinpointing an ultra-Orthodox party as the source of many of the Russian immigrants' woes, Israel B'Aliya seems to be drawing voters away from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The people sense that the right-wing government is always pairing up with the ultrareligious," says Marina Solodkin, an Israel B'Aliya member of the Knesset. "Now they are inclined to vote [the Labor Party's] Ehud Barak into power. They want solutions in the peace process and the problems of religion and state."

The immigrant party is studiously avoiding an endorsement of any candidate for prime minister, making the Russians a coveted swing vote.

Many of the "Russians" - a catchall name for a group that actually represents a myriad of languages and countries across the former USSR - voted for Labor in 1992, then helped elect Mr. Netanyahu in 1996. The past two months have seen a shift back toward Mr. Barak.

Many are angry that Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri was convicted on fraud and bribery charges in March but has remained in political life. Israel B'Aliya's campaign galvanized Russian resentment of Shas's control over the Interior Ministry, which decides who is awarded citizenship and what it says on one's identification card under "nationality."

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For the majority of Israelis, that entry says "Jewish." But for many immigrants, the entry simply says Russian, Ukrainian, or the like. They are not considered Jews under religious law, which says that a person must be born of a Jewish mother or undergo a recognized, Orthodox conversion. But according to the Law of Return, which outlines immigration rights, anyone with a Jewish grandparent can attain Israeli citizenship.

That has left a huge gap in which many with Jewish lineage or Jewish spouses are invited to immigrate but don't pass the chief rabbinate's definition of being Jewish. That can prevent them from marrying another Israeli or getting preferential mortgages reserved for Jewish immigrants.

But not from serving in the army. Barak was quick to cite this double standard.

THOUGH these contradictions in policy have existed for years, there is a feeling among Russians that ministry employees under Shas have been carrying out their job in stricter, more xenophobic fashion.

Netanyahu has been relatively quiet about the Russians' problems with the Interior Ministry, afraid of alienating his allies in Shas, which endorsed him Wednesday, the first time it has ever officially backed a candidate for prime minister.

Many immigrants say they like Barak's strong military record, which suggests he will remain mindful of Israel's security concerns in negotiations with the Palestinians.

"This time I'm for Barak," says Valeri Khavinsky, an economist who moved here from Ukraine. "I hear a big change in mood, and the root reason is that Netanyahu goes together with Shas."

To others - in fact, still a slight majority - Netanyahu represents the route to preserving the West Bank settlements many Russian newcomers were told to move to in the early 1990s.

"We don't like the Arabs so much," says Bella Auerbach, a Leningrad native who runs a bookstore in Jerusalem. "Look how many states they have and look how little land we have."

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