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Russians' key role in Israeli vote

LONDON, England (CNN) -- If Ariel Sharon becomes Israeli prime minister, he will owe his victory in no small part to Russian immigrants schooled in the politics of pessimism.

More than one million Russians have emigrated to Israel in two distinct waves since the 1970s, when the Kremlin gave a green light to the departure of more than 100,000 Soviet Jews pining for their spiritual homeland. Europe
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The exodus gathered pace dramatically in the wake of a new Soviet opening in 1989, swelling the ranks of new immigrants -- almost all Russians -- to around 15 percent of the country's electorate of 4.5 million.

For all the diversity within their ranks, Russian immigrants share much in common, including a professional pedigree second to none. Many are former doctors, musicians, lawyers and professors who have kindled an intellectual renaissance in Israeli life.

They also share a mutual disdain for the politics of spin -- a legacy of former lives spent reading between the lines of force-fed propaganda.

This legacy has been instrumental in shaping the political beliefs of much of Israel's Russian community. These are people who fled economic hardship and anti-Semitism in their homeland and who now display a steely determination to build better lives.

This is one reason, observers say, that many of the same Russians who underpinned Ehud Barak's landslide victory in Israel's last elections in May 1999 -- handing him 56 percent of his total vote -- are now turning against him en masse.

Polls in Israel indicate that as many as 80 percent of the country's Russian émigrés back Sharon, himself the son of Russian immigrants, though immigrants of a much earlier generation.

That political volte-face -- coupled with a ballot boycott by hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs, who gave Barak 96 percent of their vote in 1999 -- could spell the current prime minister's demise.

Tom Segev, a journalist with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, says the Russian voting pattern has a certain wayward quality, tending to back the opposition, "whatever the opposition is."

"They are very sceptical and naturally inclined to be pessimistic, so they do not go for concessions to the Arabs. They are people who bring with them very bad experiences, so they have not yet experienced the luxury of taking risks for peace."

That luxury, Segev added, is something that only the more "established Israeli population", those "who feel secure enough and mature enough", can afford.

Jewish pride

The Russian immigrants, often barred or intimidated from practising their religion in the former Soviet Union, tend to be more secular than many of their compatriots. In the past, observers say, they have spurned Barak for allying himself with religious groups.

Instead, many, while eschewing Zionism, have fashioned themselves as fervent supporters of a Jewish state and its territorial integrity.

A 1999 poll by Israel's largest Russian-language newspaper, Vesti, found that more than 82 percent of Russian-born Israeli immigrants opposed Israel's surrender of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

Today, many Russians are equally adamant about other issues bearing on Israel's territorial integrity, including a belief that Jerusalem is -- and must remain -- the uncontested capital of Israel, a position hotly disputed by many Palestinians.

Natan Sharansky, a one-time political dissident jailed by the Soviets, has melded a staunch espousal of Zionism and support for Soviet Jews into an immigrants' political party called Yisrael B'Aliya, or Israel and immigration.

Like many of his compatriots, Sharansky opposes Barak's peace efforts and pulled out of his government in protest.

Russian immigrants may dole out their own punishment to Barak, at the polls, on Tuesday.

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Israeli Prime Minister's Office
Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption
Vesti (in Russian)

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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