Israel’s million-strong Russian-speaking voters adored the strong Sabra hero. The feeling was mutual
Israelis often ask themselves how things might have turned out had Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated in 1995. A less frequently asked question, but no less intriguing , is how events might have unfolded had Ariel Sharon not been felled by a stroke and sank into a coma six months after the historic 2005 pullout from Gaza which he engineered, and right before the 2006 elections.
Among the many conflicting and hypothetical answers, at least one can be stated with a high degree of certainty: the Russian-speaking community in Israel, some one million newcomers from the former Soviet Union who have changed Israel to the core over the past 20 years, would have had an alternative leader. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would have lost at least half his voters and Israel’s political history might have been very different.
This scenario is not just guess work. Weeks before his last and fatal stroke, political polls showed that more than half the Russian-speaking voters – the equivalent of about 10 seats in the 120-seat Knesset – had followed Sharon to his then newly-created party, “Kadima.”
It was a leap of faith. They followed the man they loved and trusted, just as they allowed him to quietly complete the disengagement from Gaza and evacuation of Jewish settlements, though they instinctively opposed the step. From their point of view, Sharon had two crucial assets: he was the embodiment of a “strong leader,” a historically cherished quality in Russian culture, and a Jewish hero as well; he was also the ultimate “Sabra,” a native Israeli with a Russian soul.
Those factors were easily translated into personal and political support. When Sharon fell ill and left Kadima, so did his Russian voters. His successor, former Premier Ehud Olmert, was neither known nor loved by them. Lieberman then became the more natural choice. He won their support in the ensuing elections by default.
Sharon’s relationship with the Russians was nothing short of a love affair. For them, he was less the controversial leader that he was for veteran Israelis. They were not here during the bitter and tragic days of the first Lebanon war in 1982, they never participated in the mass demonstrations where he was reviled as a “killer” by the Israeli left. Even if they heard about this chapter in Israel’s history, hearing is not experiencing. Russian newspapers in Israel referred to that war as “an operation to eliminate arch- terrorists in Beirut.” That allowed them to view Sharon as more of a one dimensional figure, mostly good.
That sentiment was certainly reciprocated. Over the years, as he grew older, Sharon reconnected with his family’s Russian roots: to the language he heard in the hut his parents erected when they came to Israel as pioneers, to the music he heard as a child, to the Russian spirit he absorbed. All Israeli politicians have flirted with the Russian voters and courted that electorate. Most of them failed miserably. Sharon, on the other hand, was a natural.
In 2003, a close colleague complained to him that there was only one Russian-speaking candidate on the Likud’s Knesset list. “There are two,” replied Sharon; “I am the second.” And he meant it. In a 2011 interview, Sharon’s older son, former MK Omri Sharon, described this very unique relationship: “My father admired their strong character, tenacity, stubbornness,” he said. “He saw them as worthy partners to help him carry the burden of the big mess called the state of Israel. It was a totally emotional affiliation.”
Sharon knew how to translate this mutual emotional admiration into a political asset. He had a plan: while still the head of the Likud, he intended to create a bond between the party and the Russian-speaking voters, just as Prime Minister Menachem Begin tied that knot with the Sephardi voters of African and Asian origin, making the Likud their “natural home.”
When he moved to establish Kadima, Sharon changed the plan: he intended to make his new party “the biggest Russian party in Israel,” in his words. Bigger than Lieberman’s sectorial party, he meant. His plan seemed to be working, until that evening of January 2006 when he vanished, eight years exactly before he died.
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of “The Million that Changed the Middle East.”