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Russian voters have largely voted against the incumbent in each of the two elections since a massive wave of post-Soviet immigrants began arriving in the early '90s. They were indispensable to Netanyahu's nail-biting 51 percent victory in 1996 -- and that may turn out to be his Achilles' heel. For Netanyahu's coalition also depends heavily on the support of ultra-orthodox religious parties, and tensions between the Russians and the ultra-orthodox have erupted into open political warfare in recent weeks.
Natan Sharansky, leader of the largest Russian party, B'Aliya Israel, and a key member of Netanyahu's cabinet, has campaigned aggressively against "religious coercion," channeling Russian rage against the Interior Ministry run by Shas -- an ultra-orthodox party, mostly consisting of Moroccan Jews, that is Netanyahu's key coalition partner. "The ministry has infuriated many Russians by challenging their claim to be Jewish," says Beyer. "Many Russian immigrants don't have 100 percent Jewish ancestry, and that causes them many problems in Israel in areas such as marriage and burial, even impinging on their right to bring over their families." Shas hasn't conceded an inch, insisting on the right of the ultra-orthodox to impose strict religious criteria for immigration.
"The election has turned into an ethnic brawl between the Moroccans and the Russians, with a lot of name-calling back and forth," says Beyer. And that major headache for Netanyahu is an opportunity for Barak to wean a key constituency away from the government. "Labor calculated early on that it couldn't win much support among the ultra-orthodox, and therefore, unlike Netanyahu, Barak could afford to alienate them if that could win votes from undecided secular Russians," says Beyer. "Barak has mounted a secular challenge to the ultra-orthodox, and promised to consider Sharansky for the Interior Ministry. That's helped him overtake Netanyahu in the polls among Russian voters."