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The Russian Factor in the Israeli Elections

Prague, May 29 (RFE/RL) - Israelis head to the polls today to vote for a new national parliament and, for the first time ever, directly to elect a new prime minister. This makes the race between the incumbent prime minister - Labor party leader Shimon Peres - and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu particularly important.

The issue of security has dominated the election campaign. The 72-year-old Peres, a veteran politician and architect of Israel's land-for-peace agreements with the PLO, says he is committed to continuing peace talks with the Palestinians.

Peres says he is following the legacy of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assasinated by a radical Jewish student last November. And he charged in the final days of the campaign that a Netanyahu victory would mean "disaster" for the peace process.

Peres argued that Likud's refusal to consider any more territorial concessions to Palestinians coupled with the party's insistence on expanding Jewish settlement of Israel's occupied territories would doom "final status" negotiations with the PLO.

Peres said a halt in the peace process could then return Israel "to the dark days of the intifada" - the violent Palestinian uprising. And that would in turn harm Israel's economy and endanger the country's prosperity.

The 46-year-old Netanyahu, on the other hand, accuses the Labor government of leaving Israel open to deadly attacks. Pointing as evidence to a spate of Islamic suicide bombings that killed a total of 59 people in Israel three months ago, Netanyahu says territorial concessions to the Palestinians have provided safe havens from which terrorists can once again strike at Israel.

In a television debate on Sunday, Netanyahu repeatedly accused Peres of weakening the country and of brining back ""fear" into the lives of ordinary Israelis.

The two candidates' opposing philospophies leave voters with a stark choice today, at least in matters of foreign policy. Polls show Peres and Netanyahu in a statistical tie, which means small interest groups have great power to influence the results.

Key players in this equation are the 700,000 immigrants who have arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union since 1989. Known collectively in Israel as the "Russians", the new immigrants, when added to the alreday 250,000-strong "Russian" community, represent 12 percent of the electorate.

Former Soviet dissident Anatoly Sharansky, known as Natan Sharansky, since he settled in Israel after his release from Soviet prison, has formed a new political party to champion the rights of his immigrant compatriots. Sharansky himself is running for a seat in parliament and opinion polls show his Yisrael ba-Aliya or "Israel on the Rise" party could get up to six seats in the 120-member body. Sharansky has been careful not to endorse either Peres or Netanyahu for the prime ministership. Observers say that if the party does well, it could emerge as a much sought-after coalition partner by both Likud and Labor - giving new Soviet immigrants an important voice in Israeli politics, no matter who becomes prime minister.

Although economic issues have been overshadowed in this year's campaign, economics is what unites most of the Soviet immigrants. Although a large percentage of the new immigrants came to Israel with high professional qualifications, only 30 percent of those who have found jobs are working in their chosen field. Israel now has thousands of former Soviet doctors, lawyers and engineers who are earning minumum wages as garbage collectors, security guards and construction workers. The new "Russian" immigrants account for 30 percent of children living in poverty and 22 percent of the elderly poor.

While they struggle to integrate into Israeli society, Sharansky complains that Russians are often portrayed by the popular media as wheeler-dealers, mafia types who are at worst dangerous and at best alcoholics. Young women are often depicted as little more than prostitutes. Sharansky says that over time, such portrayals have become so routine they are considered "less sensational and more a matter of fact."

Both Peres and Netanyahu are keenly aware of the importance of the "Russian" vote and both have courted "Russian" voters - with personal appearances and TV ads subtitled in Russian. Earlier this week, Sharansky even called police to complain about a series of fake Russian-language newspaper ads saying that Sharansky's party had decided to support the Labor party. The ads were quickly removed.

Sharansky's supporters are split on the issue of negotiations with the Palestinians. They are one of the few groups in this Israeli election more concerned with "bread and butter" economic issues. But when the dust settles, economic issues will once again rise to the fore and Sharansky and his supporters could find themselves newly empowered.