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Israel Election Unexpected for Americans, Russian Jews

Washington, May 31 (RFE/RL) -- The unexpected closeness of this week's general election in Israel has Washington policy makers reassessing chances for peace in the Middle East but determined to keep the momentum going.

President Bill Clinton on Thursday was quick to pledge U.S. support for Israel and the peace process, without waiting for the final and formal declaration of the winner of Wednesday's ballot to elect the Prime Minister of Israel.

Clinton said U.S. policy will be the same, emphasizing that, in his words "whatever the results, the United States will continue its policy of support for the people of Israel, for the democratic process there, and for the process of peace."

He says that "if Israel is prepared to take risks for peace, we are determined to do our best to reduce the risks and increase the security of those who do that."

At the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said "the pursuit of the peace process is very important" regardless of who becomes prime minister -- Bibi Netanyahu of the Likud party, or Shimon Perez of the Labor party.

He said bonds between the U.S. and Israel are "enduring and unshakeable." Christopher has almost a personal stake in the mideast peace process. He has been to the region some 20 times on diplomatic missions since 1993.

Clinton's administration has favored Peres, endorsing his policy of withdrawing from land Israel won in the 1967 Mideast war in exchange for Palestinian recognition and peace with Jordan.

With early reports giving a slight lead to Netanyahu, an opponent of the land-for-peace policy, Clinton said cautiously he remains hopeful the election will produce a clear commitment to continue the peace process.

Washington policy-makers were taken aback by the almost even split in the Israeli electorate between Peres and Netanyahu.

Clinton admitted he would have preferred a wider gap in voters' choice but said he was impressed by the vigor and liveliness of democracy in Israel and the large numbers of voters who went to the polls. Well over two-thirds of eligible voters cast ballots.

The results were a surprise also to some Israelis, giving a political voice to newcomers from the Russian immigrant community of more than 600,000, now one of the largest ethnic groups in the country.

The new political party of Russian immigrants, Yisrael ba Aliya, led by former Soviet prisoner of conscience Nathan Sharansky won seven seats in the new parliament, enough to significantly influence the forming of Israel's next government.

Mica Naftalin, the head of a leading American Jewish group, says Russian immigrants will now have an official voice in the Knesset and government.

He said in an RFE/RL interview that Russian Israelis "will have real governmental bargaining power now and not just a moral voice."

Naftalin says his organization, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, has been struggling since 1970 to give persecuted Jews a voice. "We are delighted they now have a voice in their homeland," he said.

Sharansky, once a celebrated Soviet Jewish refusenik known as Anatoly Shcharansky, told reporters Thursday that he is ready to begin coalition talks.

He said he hopes the new prime minister will take a centrist position on questions of security and peace, the deciding factors in the Israeli vote.

Sharansky's party advocates economic liberalization and more jobs, housing and schools for immigrants. He does not rule out a land-for-peace policy but urges that it be conditioned on an Arab commitment to human rights and democracy.

Martin Wenick, director of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that has sponsored tens of thousands of Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet republics, says smaller parties will play a much more significant role in the new fractured parliament.

Although it's not certain yet that Sharansky's party will be included in any government coalition, it will focus more attention on immigrant needs, he said.

Wenick says Jews from Russia and other former Soviet republics are no longer streaming into Israel in the hundreds of thousands, but are still emigrating there in significant numbers. He says that in the past two years immigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel has slowed to a steady rate of between 60,000 and 70,000 persons a year.