Russian Jews switch to Likud

Jerusalem - Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who helped to put Israel's Labour government into power three years ago, are defecting to Likud, and may help to oust Labour in next year's elections, writes Patrick Cockburn.

A survey of voting intentions among the 570,000 Jews who have come from the former USSR since 1989 shows that two-thirds now support Likud. The polls also show that a party of immigrants would win 12 or 13 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament. The most likely candidate to set up such a party is the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky (known in Soviet days as Anatoly Shcharansky), who is believed to be on the verge of declaring his intentions. He is close to Bibi Netanyahu, the Likud leader, and would probably form an alliance with him after the election.

The main reason for the change in the voting intentions of predominantly Russian Jews, more than half of whom voted for Labour in 1992, is fear for their security after recent suicide bomb attacks, according to the survey by the Tatzpit Institute. Some 35 per cent said this was their main consideration. In addition, 76 per cent are against returning the Golan to Syria, which Labour has proposed so as to reach a peace deal.

The immigrants, most of whom are highly educated, have generally done well in Israel. Over 110,000 have bought their own houses. Labour has been badly damaged among the Russian immigrants by the remarks of Oren Amir, Labour and Social Affairs Minister, who last year said that Israel might have to be more selective in picking immigrants because too many of those from the former Soviet Union were elderly and sick. The implication, which does not appear to have much basis in fact, was that Russians Jews better able to take care of themselves were not emigrating to Israel.

Some 45 per cent of immigrants said they would support a party devoted to their interests. However, if the immigrants split their votes among different parties or do not vote - as happens with the 800,000 Israeli Arabs - they would not form as powerful a voting bloc in the Knesset as the survey suggests.