Founded by the controversial Russian-born billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, the Social Welfare Party (SWP) is but the latest gladiator to enter Israel’s increasingly fragmented political arena. For decades the Knesset was dominated by eternal foes Labor and Likud, yet today it is home to a dozen small and medium-size parties, while tens of others failed to meet the minimum amount of votes required to enter parliament.
Within this widely varied political landscape, the distinct “Russian vote” is of growing importance. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, some 1.2 million immigrants of Jewish descent were welcomed in Israel. Note, however, that although a Jew is generally defined as someone born to a Jewish mother, the Israeli Law of Return grants anyone with a Jewish grandparent the right to live the Zionist dream. It is estimated that some 300,000 Russian immigrants are not Jews.
Note as well that not all immigrants are Russians. They are mainly referred to as such because of the language they speak, which today is a common feature of Israeli society. Representing at least 20 of the Knesset’s total of 120 seats, the Russians are also known as the “kingmakers” of Israeli politics, as they are able to make or break a coalition. Little wonder then that during the 2006 elections Israel’s leading political parties all ran Russian-language campaigns.
Like other Russian parties, the SWP appears to the right of the Israeli political spectrum. It aims to topple the Olmert government, because of its failures in the 2006 Lebanon war, and promises full integration and social justice for Russian immigrants, most of whom are secular, belong to lower and middle class income groups, and share a sentiment of being second-class citizens.
During past elections, Israel’s Russians have predominantly voted right-wing, and showed a preference for a strong charismatic leader most likely to deliver on the issues of security and stability. The self-made man Gaydamak seems to meet that demand.
Born in Russia in 1952, Gaydamak left for France at the age of 20. Having started as a day laborer, he worked his way up the business ladder by means of a translation and import-export firm working between France and Russia. Part of his fortune, worth an estimated $4 billion, may not have been earned legitimately, as French authorities are keen to interrogate Gaydamak about his role in “Angolagate,” in which hundreds of millions worth of arms were smuggled to the African nation.
Gaydamak expects the SWP to win no less than 40 seats, even though he himself will not run. He has also set his eyes on becoming the mayor of Jerusalem, banking on the fact he owns the Holy City’s leading football and basketball teams.
It remains to be seen if the SWP can indeed win up to 40 seats. Thus, Benyamin Netanyahu’s Russian-media strategist, Michael Falkov, told the Jerusalem Post that Gaydamak lost a lot of popularity trying to acquire the Russian pork-selling supermarket chain Tiv Ta’am and make it kosher. As the Russian vote is fiercely secular, that particular move was not appreciated.
What’s more, Gaydamak is not the first Russian to enter Israeli politics playing the immigrant card. In the mid-1990s, Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who spent years in the Gulag, founded Israel B’Aliya (Israel on the Rise), which promoted the rapid absorption of Soviet Jews and in 1996 won 7 seats. However, he failed to deliver and after a brief spell as minister under Ariel Sharon only managed to re-enter the Knesset as a Likud candidate.
Sharansky’s position as Israel’s leading Russian politician has now been taken by Avigdor Lieberman. Having previously worked as the Likud Party’s Director General, he participated in the 2006 elections with his Yisrael Baytenu (Israel – Our Home), which gained 11 seats. With the arrival of Lieberman, Israeli hard-line politics became a whole different ballgame.
Lieberman propagates positions considered radical even among the right wing. He was once quoted as saying that Palestinian prisoners should be drowned in the Dead Sea and that he himself would provide the buses. More recently, he called for a loyalty test for Arab-Israelis and for the execution of Israeli MPs who met with Hamas representatives. Despite these and other controversial remarks, Olmert appointed him as Minister of Strategic Affairs, a new cabinet position that solely deals with Iran.
At this point, it is unlikely that Gaydamak will be able to overtake the popular Lieberman as Israel’s leading Russian politician. Yet, whatever the face of the Russian vote may be, it is a vote that is here to stay and one that favors a hard line “safety first” approach in negotiations with the Palestinians and other Arab nations. What makes the Russians different from other right-wing voters is their as fervent disliking of the religious right.
And the latter is arguably the good news, as it is likely to prevent an ultra-right cocktail between Likud, the Russians and the Orthodox Jews to come into existence, for one need not be a genius to predict what that could mean for the future of the Middle East.