Anglos in Israel are key swing vote for smaller parties

JERUSALEM — As Israel's election approaches, the country's English-speaking immigrants find themselves in the unusual position of being courted.

For the first time, more than one political party is reaching out to this small but influential community — but the Western immigrants wonder whether they ever can be well represented in the Middle Eastern-style bazaar of Israeli politics.

Known locally as "Anglo-Saxons," the English-speaking immigrants hail from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa. The community numbers around 200,000, most of them — some 120,000 — from North America.

In the past, the Anglo community has voted overwhelmingly for right-leaning parties. There have been exceptions, notably in May 1999 when Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak beat the incumbent prime minister, Likud Party head Benjamin Netanyahu.

But then Ariel Sharon of the Likud trounced Barak in February 2001, as Israelis — natives, veteran immigrants and newcomers — veered back toward the right in the face of the Palestinian intifada.

Nearly two years later, many Israelis, including Anglo immigrants, still identify as right-of-center. And even with the return to the old system of casting just one vote — for a party, rather than a prime ministerial candidate — expected to cut into small parties' support, the Anglo community isn't lining up monolithically behind the Likud.

Since a Likud victory seems probable, many voters may decide to cast ballots for other parties to influence whether Sharon forms a narrow, right-wing coalition or a unity government with Labor, said Stu Schnee, a marketing manager originally from New Jersey.

Schnee has voted faithfully for the Likud in most elections, but this time is considering voting for the National Union, a small, far-right party.

"I have no illusion that the National Union will change anything, but the question is who will be Sharon's partners?" Schnee asked. "Likud is pushing the peace negotiations forward, just more slowly."

As for the Labor Party, chairman Amram Mitzna "is a dreamer — with the best of intentions, but out of touch with reality," Schnee said.

But Schnee's mind is still open.

"I have to read the polls," he added. "If Sharon is up, then I'll vote National Union. If he's in trouble, then I have to make sure he gets more votes than Mitzna."

"In the old days, I would vote Likud, but it might have been out of habit," said Mordy Kehat, 44, a native New Yorker who has been living in Israel since he was 11.

"When I look at the Likud today, I'm kind of put off by the people," said Kehat, a former Israeli air force officer. "I don't like the politicians that make up the rank-and-file, and I didn't like that they didn't hold open primaries."

Given his rather centrist point of view, Kehat is strongly considering Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, Natan Sharansky's immigrant faction, which has been aiming itself at English-speaking voters for the last year and a half and has put an immigrant from the United States high on its Knesset slate.

Yisrael Ba'Aliyah won kudos from Anglo voters in the fall, when the party fought against a proposed tax reform that would have radically increased taxes on immigrants' overseas assets.

The party succeeded in exempting certain retired immigrants from the law, which may have won them new voters.

"This American thing isn't just an election ploy. They've been doing it for the last year and a half," said Russell Rothstein, 34, a venture capitalist who lives in Rehovot.

Yisrael Ba'Aliyah's number of seats in the Knesset has fallen as its members have migrated to other parties to the right or left of the right-of-center faction.

It also has been upstaged among immigrants to a certain degree by the Israel Our Home Party of veteran immigrant Avigdor Lieberman. But Israel Our Home runs more on a right-wing platform toward the Palestinians than as an immigrant party per se.

Yisrael Ba'Aliyah isn't the only party appealing to Anglo immigrants.

The left-wing One Nation Party says it will work against parts of the new tax reform that could harm Western immigrants. The party also says new immigrants should be eligible for stipends for their disabled children, and says it will press the government to give pensions and medical insurance to elderly retirees who move to Israel.