Israel's Russians look to their own

General election: 'Neglected' Jews from the former Soviet Union back human-rights hero

When Anna Dobroborsky writes to friends in Moldova, she keeps quiet about her job. Before emigrating to Israel in 1991, she was a senior engineer in a factory; in Jerusalem, she cleans floors.

In the 1992 election, she and her tailor husband, Lazar, did not vote. "We still didn't understand what was going on here," she said. "We had been political activists in the Soviet Union. We believed you should vote responsibly, for something you knew about." Anna is 55; Lazar 60. She works full-time; he has a part-time job. Together they earn 4,000 shekels (pounds 800) a month.

Home is a caravan, for which they pay a nominal rent of 20 shekels a month. They see no prospect of buying a flat, even with a subsidised mortgage. Neither the government nor the council has rented housing to offer. If they could turn back the clock, the couple admitted, they would not have left Moldova. "The only way to deal with the fact that a chief engineer is working as a cleaner," said Anna, "is not to think about it."

This time, the Dobroborskys will vote. "Now," said Lazar, "we understand what life is like here." They will vote on 29 May for a new Russian immigrants' party led by the Gulag graduate Natan Sharansky, and for the right-wing Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, in the separate ballot for Prime Minister. "We are disappointed with the Labour government," Anna said. "They never did anything for us. Russian immigrants have been humiliated. We want people in parliament who know our problems and want to do something about them."

If most of the 400,000 ex-Soviet immigrant voters who have settled in Israel since 1989 followed their example, they could overthrow Shimon Peres's centre-left coalition. The Russians account for about 10 per cent of the electorate in a tight race. In 1992 a majority of the newcomers voted Labour to punish a Likud government for "neglecting" them. Four years later, many are equally disenchanted with Labour. They seem, however, to be taking it out on the party rather than its leader.

A recent poll found 37.9 per cent of the immigrants backing Mr Sharansky, to 23.7 for Likud and 20.9 for Labour. Yet Mr Peres led Mr Netanyahu by 10 per cent for Prime Minister, with 9 per cent undecided. Mr Netanyahu has yet to convince the newcomers he would do a better job. "With Sharansky I feel I can influence things," said Boris, an engineer."But I don't see anybody to choose from for Prime Minister.

Segei Makarov, 56, an ex-Moscow science writer who now earns his living as a translator, night watchman and occasional furniture-van driver, said: "Peres is much closer to me. He's more intelligent, more European. I'd like him to be stronger, more careful, in the peace talks, but I'm not against a Palestinian state.

"Netanyahu is too aggressive for me ... To handle the intricate situation we're in, you need wisdom and vision." So Mr Peres wins his vote for Prime Minister but he is backing Mr Sharansky for the Knesset. If the polls are right, the former human-rights hero could take four seats in the 120- seat chamber.

Mr Sharansky said: "We didn't form this party to get into government ... but as a magnet that attracts Jews by its quality of life ... and civil rights. We want immigrants to be able to use their talents and compete so that more will want to come."

He would, however, negotiate with either Mr Peres or Mr Netanyahu. "Whoever wins the election," said Haim Ramon, Labour's campaign director, "Sharansky will be a minister."

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