Russian immigrants have pushed Israel to the right

ARIEL, WEST BANK // Daniel Natanyilov does not mince his words when it comes to Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

"He's a very powerful man, a strong leader," the 30-year-old resident of Ariel, a vast Israeli settlement, said with a clenched fist.

Fleeing authoritarianism and anti-Semitism, Mr Natanyilov was one of more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who moved to Israel at the end of the Cold War when the Kremlin lifted a draconian emigration ban.

Yet his admiration for Russia's autocratic president, who tomorrow visits Israel for the first time since 2005, underscores what many leftist Israelis and Palestinians call a disturbing trend in Israel.

Russian immigrants are criticised for bringing with them right-wing sentiments that have fuelled the rise of parties espousing pro-settler, xenophobic and anti-democratic agendas that have overpowered Israel's left and complicated peace prospects with the Palestinians.

Bill Clinton, a former US president deeply involved in the peace process, once lumped them together with settlers as the "hardest-core people against a division of the land" with the Palestinians.

Ghassan Khatib, the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, described them as a boon to "aggressive and colonialist tendencies in Israel, and their immigration has helped shift Israel to the right - to the disadvantage of peace possibilities".

In an indication of the influence of Israel's Soviet immigrants, one of the first leaders to greet Mr Putin at Ben Gurion International Airport will be the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, Mr Lieberman, who lives in a settlement, heads a party founded by Soviet immigrants, Yisrael Beiteinu, which advocates an ultranationalist platform that includes expelling Israel's Arab citizens.

But it would be wrong to assume Mr Putin's Israel foray will energise all of Israel's "Russians", according to analysts and political observers.

They have increasingly integrated into Israeli society after decades of struggling, said Tamar Hermann, professor of sociology and political science at the Open University of Israel and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

"Empirical evidence shows they have undergone a process of assimilation into Israeli society," she said.

Unlike their parents, the children rely far less on Israel's dwindling Russian-language media outlets. They speak Hebrew flawlessly and have undergone the national bonding of military service.

Forming about 15 per cent of Israel's population of 7.7 million, the community supports a broad range of largely right-wing parties.

Indeed those such as Yisrael Beiteinu have expanded beyond Soviet immigrants and are backed by a large cross-section of society.

Moreover, observers point out, Soviet immigrants did not initiate Israel's rightward drift that began in 1977 with the rise of the Likud party. But they have since given succour to the right, in part, they say, because of the marginalisation and discrimination they faced when arriving to Israel.

About a third of arriving Soviet immigrants did not fit the traditional definition of being Jewish, which requires the mother to be a Jew. Because of this, many are still denied state-recognised marriage, which is controlled by the religions establishment.

Religious Israelis also disparage them as being voracious consumers of pork products.

This still fosters a feeling of being "second-class citizens", said Assia Istoshina, a former journalist at the international Russian-language RTVi television station who came to Israel from Moscow in 1989 at the age of 18.

"There's still suspicion that we're not Jewish enough," she said

But like other immigrant communities before them, such as Jews from Arab countries, Ms Istoshina and others say Soviet immigrants have supported right-wing parties as a means to ingratiate themselves in Israel. Contributing to this is an aversion to left-wing politics, which many equate with the state repression of communist rule.

"They aligned themselves with the Jewish majority against the Palestinians in the territories and by doing that, they make themselves feel like they belong," she said.

Indeed Palestinians lament their influx as a demographic tool to leverage more Jews against them. Some also became soldiers in the Palestinian Territories, such as veterans of Russia's 1990s wars against Chechnya, who later formed a special Israeli-military sniper unit called the "immigration brigade".

"I remember years ago in the '90s when they started coming, many of the left-wing Israelis thought they would influence Israel towards more secularism and progressive ideas," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee

"Ironically, it's exactly the opposite."

Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist who came from St Petersburg in 1989, said state policy is partly to blame for the embrace of right-wing politics. Israel's privatisation efforts in the 1990s pushed many Soviet immigrants into settlements because of their affordable, state-subsidised housing.

Arriving in tiny Israel from the Soviet Union's vast expanses, few also seem inclined to relinquish control over the Palestinian territories. Suicide bombings during the second intifada did not help the latter sentiment, either, Mr Reider said. He referred to the 2001 Palestinian attack on Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium nightclub that killed 21 teenagers, most of them Russian.

"That really bruised the community," Mr Reider said.

Back in Ariel, home to thousands of largely secular Soviet immigrants, Mr Natanyilov awaits the Russian president's visit with gusto. Unlike most Israeli leaders, he said, Mr Putin "is strong in his mind, just like Sharon".

That was a reference to Ariel Sharon, a former Israeli prime minister and architect of the settlement enterprise.

"Israel needs strong men like Putin and Sharon," he said.

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