Russians hold key in Israeli election

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ISRAEL IS to celebrate a new national holiday. It will be on 9 May and will commemorate the Russian victory over Germany in the Second World War.

In the run-up to the election on 17 May Israeli politicians will stop at nothing to cultivate the one-million-strong Russian-Jewish immigrant community. They have 14 per cent of the vote and all parties consider their support to be crucial for victory at the polls.

Ehud Barak, the front runner, has now outdone Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he wants to replace as prime minister, in promises to the Russians. Addressing a meeting of immigrants in Haifa he praised Red Army veterans among them who "saved freedom in the world and enabled the establishment of the state of Israel".

In future, Mr Barak promised, the new government "will ensure that the ninth of May in the year 2000 will be celebrated as a national holiday and will continue to be marked every year as a holiday for all Israelis". Ever since 1945 Moscow has celebrated 9 May as victory day, with a military march-past in Red Square.

The blandishments and promises on offer to the Russian community have become almost embarrassing. The most heavily courted man in Israel at the moment is Natan Sharansky, the former famed Soviet dissident and leader of Yisrael Ba'aliyah, the largest Russian party in Israel.

Mr Sharansky, who is notably short and bald, is openly revelling in his sudden popularity with the candidates. He says: "They've suddenly come to realise that I'm a handsome, tall man with thick, curly hair. What's the problem, let me enjoy myself a little."

The problem for Mr Netanyahu is that the polls show a 20 per cent slide in his support among the Russian community over the last month. He is still their favoured candidate, but not by a wide-enough margin to win him the election.

Not that the Prime Minister is not trying. He too is offering benefits to Red Army veterans. But his room for manoeuvre is less than that of Mr Barak. The two key building blocks of the coalition Mr Netanyahu leads are the ultra-orthodox Sephardi (Jews mainly from Arab countries) and the Russian immigrants. But the two groupshave quarrelled bitterly.

Mr Barak does not expect to win too many ultra-orthodox votes so he can afford to be generous to the Russians. In particular he can offer them the Interior Ministry, currently a fief of Shas, the main Sephardi religious party. The threat to this bastion led Eli Suissa, the Minister of the Interior, to lash out out at Russian immigrants for the second time this week. He said: "They want the Interior Ministry to bring in forgers and call girls and mafia men, most of whom are not Jewish."

Mr Barak has seen his support among Russians rise from 19 per cent to 40 per cent in a few weeks and is not going to let go of the issue. Over Passover he entertained at his home an Israeli soldier from Russia whose mother could not get permission to emigrate to Israel. He said this week that under his government "it will be inconceivable that a soldier is good enough to defend the state, but his mother is not good enough to live here with him".

Mr Netanyahu once had close personal relations with Mr Sharansky and will try to win back Russian support. The Russians and Shas differ on social and cultural issues, but both back a tough policy towards the Palestinians. Unfortunately for Mr Netanyahu, relations with the Palestinians, for all his efforts, have not emerged as a prime issue in the election.