Carville Stirs Israel's Melting Pot


May 4, 1999

Problems with the Palestinians are forgotten as ethnic politics shape the Jewish state's election.

It's the Russians, stupid. Or alternately, it's the Sephardim, stupid. But one thing Israel's May 17 election is decidedly not about is the peace process. The reason is that this time around, Benjamin Netanyahu is up against the electoral wiles of James Carville, the U.S. pollster who got Bill Clinton into office by bushwhacking a foreign-policy president with a deluge of domestic grievances and is now trying to do the same for Labor party leader Ehud Barak. Netanyahu had planned to scare up a majority by retreading his 1996 strategy of invoking a Palestinian menace -- his campaign is even running TV ads filled with gruesome footage from pre-1996 suicide bombings -- but voters don't appear to be taking the bait. Israelis have become accustomed, since the Oslo Agreement came unstuck in 1996, to a permanent state of low-level crisis in their relations with the Palestinians. "For the voters, this election is not about the peace process," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. And that's left Netanyahu flailing.

While the prime minister struggles to ignite his campaign, Barak, under Carville's tutelage, is making hay of a hot-button domestic issue. "Barak has found his wedge in the seething resentment of Israel's huge Russian immigrant population," says Beyer. "Israel's big parties each have their long-established voting bloc, and those tend to cancel each other out. But although there are some core voters for the left and the right among the Russians, the majority can still go either way."

Russian voters have largely voted against the incumbent in each of the two elections since a massive wave of post-Soviet immigrants began arriving in the early '90s. They were indispensable to Netanyahu's nail-biting 51 percent victory in 1996 -- and that may turn out to be his Achilles' heel. For Netanyahu's coalition also depends heavily on the support of ultra-orthodox religious parties, and tensions between the Russians and the ultra-orthodox have erupted into open political warfare in recent weeks.

Natan Sharansky, leader of the largest Russian party, B'Aliya Israel, and a key member of Netanyahu's cabinet, has campaigned aggressively against "religious coercion," channeling Russian rage against the Interior Ministry run by Shas -- an ultra-orthodox party, mostly consisting of Moroccan Jews, that is Netanyahu's key coalition partner. "The ministry has infuriated many Russians by challenging their claim to be Jewish," says Beyer. "Many Russian immigrants don't have 100 percent Jewish ancestry, and that causes them many problems in Israel in areas such as marriage and burial, even impinging on their right to bring over their families." Shas hasn't conceded an inch, insisting on the right of the ultra-orthodox to impose strict religious criteria for immigration.

"The election has turned into an ethnic brawl between the Moroccans and the Russians, with a lot of name-calling back and forth," says Beyer. And that major headache for Netanyahu is an opportunity for Barak to wean a key constituency away from the government. "Labor calculated early on that it couldn't win much support among the ultra-orthodox, and therefore, unlike Netanyahu, Barak could afford to alienate them if that could win votes from undecided secular Russians," says Beyer. "Barak has mounted a secular challenge to the ultra-orthodox, and promised to consider Sharansky for the Interior Ministry. That's helped him overtake Netanyahu in the polls among Russian voters." (continued)

Not that Barak doesn't have his own ethnic problem. Just as he appeared to be making gains on the Russian front, an ethnic slur uttered by a Labor supporter threatens to reverse some of the gains Barak has made in Netanyahu's traditional Sephardic base (Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries, whose mistreatment at the hands of successive Labor governments has translated into bitter resentment against the party of the mostly European Ashkenazi elite). Barak launched his campaign by making an unprecedented apology to the Sephardim for Labor's past treatment of them, and mounting unemployment had begun to swing sections of that community behind Labor. But when an actress, who happens to be Sephardic-born, spoke on a Barak platform at the weekend and used the term "riffraff" to refer to Netanyahu's supporters, the prime minister believed he'd found his Willy Horton. "Proud to be riffraff" is now a key campaign slogan of Netanyahu's -- who happens to be Ashkenazi -- as his campaign tries to tarnish Barak's party as closet racists.

Not even armed demonstrations in the West Bank town of Hebron Tuesday, or more casualties in Israel's southern Lebanon occupation zone, have distracted Israeli politicians from their fratricidal political infighting. And there could be worse to come: Barak currently has the edge over Netanyahu in the polls, but there's no sign yet that he'll achieve the critical mass to emerge from the still-crowded field and win it in the first round. That would leave Netanyahu and Barak to duke it out in a runoff vote on June 1 -- and lead to a further two weeks of bruising battles in Israel's domestic culture wars.

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