Wooing immigrant vote

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JERUSALEM — The two top contenders for the Israeli premiership did their best this week to woo supporters of a fledgling political party made up mainly of Russian immigrants.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party and Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, appeared Sunday before the founding convention of the Yisrael ba-Aliyah Party, which was meeting to elect its slate for the May 29 Knesset elections.

Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet Jewish activist and Prisoner of Zion, founded the party to champion immigrants' rights. "Yisrael ba-Aliyah" — which has the dual meaning of "Israel for immigration" and "Israel moving upward" — has drawn its primary support from among the more than 600,000 citizens of the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel since 1989.

Recent polls suggest that the party, which has signed up some 36,000 supporters, may win at least four of the 120 Knesset seats in the upcoming elections.

More than 1,800 delegates met Sunday at Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha'ooma convention center, where they elected Sharansky party chairman and first on their Knesset slate. The next three slots on the list went to Michael Nudelman, Yuli Edelstein and Yuli Stern, all former Soviet refuseniks as well.

Peres, seeking the party's support in his bid to hold on to the premiership, told the immigrant audience members that they were "partners and brothers" in the building of the Jewish state.