Steve Weizman, AFP
Last updated: 18 January, 2013

Anxiety as Russian immigrants push Israeli voters rightward

The face of the Israeli electorate has had an extreme makeover in the 20 years since Labour’s Yitzhak Rabin signed a peace deal with the Palestinians and his leftwing party held 44 seats in parliament.

Disillusioned by a failure of the Oslo peace agreement and hardened by a series of bloody conflicts with the Palestinians, today’s voters stand well to the right.

Two years after signing the 1993 Oslo Accords, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist, marking the start of a decline for Labour which today has eight seats, although it is expected to double that number in Tuesday’s vote.

But analysts see the political horizon in 2013 as more complex than simply a drift rightward by the Israeli electorate.

“I think that the categories ‘left’ and ‘right’ are not subtle enough to cover the changes in Israeli public opinion,” said Yehudit Auerbach, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

“Thirty or 40 years ago there were very many people who said there is no such thing as the Palestinian people,” she told AFP.

“Today — apart from the most absurdly extreme right — the sane right and most of the public accept that there is a Palestinian people, (and) they are even prepared to accept a Palestinian state.”

Gideon Rahat, of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said that while the mainstream right, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, may have edged toward the centre, the Israeli voter has in tandem moved to the right.

In June 2009, Netanyahu for the first time publicly endorsed the concept of a Palestinian state, although he has not made progress in realising it.

“The parties moved to the centre and the voters clearly moved to the right,” Rahat told AFP.

An alliance of Likud and the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beitenu is seen picking up around 33 mandates, well down from their combined total of 45 in the 2009 race, although overall the right-wing-religious bloc is seen commanding 71 seats — easily enough to form the next ruling coalition.

Ukrainian-born Roman Bronfman came to Israel in 1980 and became an MP for a leftist party representing Russian-speaking immigrants. He quit politics in 2006 to go into business.

Co-author of a new book, “A million who changed the Middle East”, he argues that the mass migration of Soviet Jews in the 1990s redrew the local political map, bolstering the hardline right.

“It connected with the non-democratic forces in Israel,” he told AFP. “It joined them because it had no democratic tradition.”

He said many of those million immigrants, who made a huge demographic impact on the Jewish state — which today has a population of 7.93 million — have become part of broader Israeli society, but the “Russian vote” still exists.

“It’s about half of what it was 10 years ago,” Bronfman said.

“The younger ones vote more for the established Israeli parties, but about half still wants to see the Russian-speaking community represented in the Knesset.”

The Russians are a key source of electoral strength for Moldovan-born former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party which is running on a joint list with Likud.

“The Russians vote from the centre to the right, most of them according to surveys vote for Likud-Beitenu,” Rahat said.

“There is a Russian vote and it’s more right-wing.”

Bar Ilan’s Auerbach believes much support for the right is driven by anxiety stemming from the failure to end the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the perception that peace became even more remote after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, ousting forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

“There is a feeling of desperation, a growing lack of faith in the other side, a feeling that there really is no partner and the greater part of the population share that feeling,” she said.

“It is a feeling that this is not the time for possibly dangerous breakthroughs in the peace process, when there is nobody on the other side to deliver the goods.”