Russian speakers are ditching Liberman: Where are they going?

Aside from the elderly, the Russian-speaking community in Israel is no longer throwing its support behind the Yisrael Beiteinu leader. So why aren’t the other parties capitalizing on Liberman’s loss?

By Edi Zhensker

Much has been written about media’s role in establishing the daily agenda in Israel: issues that the media decides to spotlight make it into the public discourse, while other issues that the media doesn’t deem fit to cover fall by the wayside. During the elections, the spotlighted issues are even more pronounced, since politicians and their parties fight for every second of screen time or photo in the photos in order to make headlines and remain relevant. As opposed to exposing politicians the public, I would like to take the time and discuss the Russian public’s exposure to the politicians.

Avigdor Liberman speaks at the campaign launch for the upcoming elections. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills)
Avigdor Liberman speaks at the campaign launch for the upcoming elections. While elderly Russian-speakers may give him 4-5 seats,  (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills)

Over the last couple of months, media outlets have been dealing with the question of how the Russian public is going to vote in the upcoming elections, beginning with articles in newspapers and continuing with television shows. Full disclosure: as someone who appears in some of these articles, I can say that more are on their way. And speaking of full disclosure, I must also mention that I work in the Russian caucus of the Labor Party.

So what happened that all of a sudden the media cares about this group, which doesn’t usually get much exposure? The main reason is Yisrael Beiteinu’s ongoing corruption scandal. “Will the Russian-speaking population continue to vote for Liberman after the scandal?” asks the Hebrew media, when what it really means to ask is: “Will those Russians finally see the light, stop being Russians and start voting for Israeli parties?”

But what the media and perhaps even the Israeli public understands today is what us Russian-speakers have understood for at least two years. That also includes Liberman, of course. In the 2013 elections he was a member of Likud because he understood that his voting base no longer supports him, and therefore he could no longer run on a sectorial platform. In reality, the Russians didn’t support anyone.

But two years have gone by – two years of vacuum; two years with a lack of representation or political leadership; two years in which a party that could have won the support of 750,000 people would have enjoyed the support of a population that is looking for representation and a political home.

Only after the elections will we find out what will happen with the Russian voice in Israel. Parties that will be able to build public and media prominence will win the vote of the Russian-speaking community. There is no need to use Russian as a tool to achieve that buzz. Actually, it’s probably better not to, since Hebrew will likely bring home that message. There is, however, a need to speak directly to Russians – to learn and speak about the issues most relevant to them.

The recent articles published about the Russian-speaking public in Israel reveal that a fundamental change is currently taking place. The younger generation is becoming more heterogenous, challenging the notion of Israeliness and redefining its boundaries. But what political parties will do with this information is yet to be seen. In the 2013 elections, the voting percentage among the Russian-speaking public was lower than that of the rest of Israeli society, since they simply had no one to vote for. A similar outcome is expected this time around as well.

But something must be said about voting for Liberman. Recent polls show that Yisrael Beiteinu is polling at five seats for the upcoming election; according to a top pollster, the older Russian-speaking population will give Liberman 4-5 seats. These are mostly elderly people who solely consume Russian media and rarely come in contact with the Hebrew-speaking media

This teaches us two important things. The first is that the Israeli public has completely left Liberman behind, and Liberman has most likely left the Israeli public behind as well. He is in crisis, and his campaign – under the banner “Russians – come home” – is directed at the Russian-speaking population alone. Lili Galili explains this tactic excellently in her report on i24. The second thing we can learn is that the elderly Russian public has ditched Liberman. But this is not something new – it is a process that has been taking place for several years. The new statistics simply confirm it.

Edi Zhensker works for the Labor Party’s Russian caucus, and is a blogger for +972’s sister site, Local Call, where this article was originally published in Hebrew.

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