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Israel elections Wednesday, 12 May, 1999, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Israel woos Russian vote
Prime Minister Netanyahu: Trying to keep the Russian vote in check
By BBC Jerusalem Correspondent Hilary Andersson

With the Israeli elections only days away the major political parties have shifted their attention to trying to win the Russian vote.

In a country where elections are notoriously close-run events, the Russians are being hailed as the block which holds the critical balance of power.

Israel Elections Special Report
There are almost a million Russians in Israel, and an estimated 600,000 of them will be voting.

They have replaced Jews of Arab origin as the biggest ethnic voting block in the country. In the last elections they ensured victory for Binyamin Netanyahu, but this time their allegiances are shifting.

Economic escapism

Alex Axelevitch and his wife Ela came to Israel in the early 1990s, when Israel opened the doors to hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, fleeing from Russia's economic woes.

Ehud Barak meets Russian voters
Reaching out: Ehud Barak is winning Russian votes
They have done well in Israel, moving from being street cleaners to being employed in specialised professional jobs. But neither of them credit Mr Netanyahu with their success.

"It's time to give someone else a chance", said Ela, "We voted for Netanyahu two years ago, but his government has not achieved much".

The Labour party has tried every trick to try to capitalise on its growing support amongst the Russians.

Race for the Russians

Labour's prime ministerial candidate Ehud Barak has sung Russian songs on stage in front of potential voters, and even lost a public chess game to Israel's most famous Russian, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.

Natan Sharansky, leader of the Russian Immigrants Party
Natan Sharansky: Russian immigrants leader wooed
Labour has also launched an advertising campaign in Russian highlighting Mr Barak's proud military past.

It is an attempt to make him look tough and invincible, for Labour's strategists know that in the last elections many Russians supported Mr Netanyahu because they saw him as a strong character.

The incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu is worried. His Russian language campaign advertisements do not seem to be working.

His support amongst the Russians has slipped from 73% in 1996 to just over 50% now.

He is all too aware that to win these elections he cannot afford to lose any of the votes cast in his favour three years ago, for he won last time by a tiny margin.

One of the reasons the Russians are deserting Mr Netanyahu, says political analyst Robert Rosenburg, is his poor track record on the economy.

"The economy is the big factor in these elections. Not only have 100,000 people lost their jobs, but small businesses are going down the tubes and there are a lot of Russians in small business", he said.

Secular vote

Another reason for their shifting allegiances is that the largely secular Russians do not like all of Mr Netanyahu's political allies, notably those of the ultra orthodox political persuasion.

The main ultra orthodox party, Shas, has controlled the interior ministry for several years, and many Russians whose claims to being Jewish are considered inadequate have been sent home.

The Labour leader is currently streaking ahead in the polls, and that is being largely credited to their success in winning the Russian vote.

But the gap between candidates traditionally narrows in Israel as polling day gets nearer, so it could all still change.

BBC Correspondent Hillary Andersson reports from Jerusalem
Links to more Israel elections stories are at the foot of the page.

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