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Israel’s election hopefuls set sights on French Jews

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters during a campaign meeting with members of Israel's French Jewish community on March 10, 2015, in the Israeli city of Netanya.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters during a campaign meeting with members of Israel's French Jewish community on March 10, 2015, in the Israeli city of Netanya. AFP / Jack Guez

As campaigning heats up ahead of what is predicted to be an extremely close general election in Israel on Tuesday, politicians are, for the first time, turning their attention to an increasingly important demographic – immigrants from France.

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Israel has seen a huge influx of Jewish immigrants from France in the past two years, with an estimated 10,000 new arrivals since the last election in 2013. Last year, for the first time, more Jews came to Israel from France than from anywhere else in the world – more than 10,000 in total, according to figures from the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Under the country’s “right of return” laws for Jews coming to live in Israel, these new arrivals have the right to immediate citizenship and, as such, to vote.

All told, as many as 50,000 French Jews could vote in next week’s election out of a total electorate of around 5.8 million.

In an election where the two main contenders – Isaac Herzog’s centre-left Zionist Union and current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s centre-right Likud – are currently neck-and-neck in the polls, it is enough to make an important difference.

“It is hard to know the percentage that will vote,” Yossi Shain, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, told FRANCE 24 “but it’s a large community. It could certainly be significant.”

Canvassing for French votes

This has not escaped the notice of the country’s politicians who, for the first time in the history of Israeli elections, are directly canvassing French voters.

Netanyahu, Herzog and other party leaders have held election rallies with members of Israel's French-Jewish community in recent weeks, while Likud has even launched a French-language version of its Facebook page as part of a social media campaign aimed at Francophone voters.

At a rally on Sunday, Herzog told French-Israeli voters his party was the only one that could offer a real alternative to Netanyahu’s government.

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“The Olim (immigrants to Israel) from France want social justice and policy that seeks peace,” Herzog, who has said he is open to a two-state solution with the Palestinians, was quoted as saying by Israpresse, a recently established French-language press agency set up to serve Israel’s burgeoning French community.

Herzog may have his work cut out for him. Conventional wisdom states that Israel’s French community is generally religiously hardline, conservative and votes for parties on the right of the political spectrum.

“The main issues for French voters will be security and Israel’s relations with France – with the fear over what is happening there,” said Shain, referring to reports of growing anti-Semitism in France and in particular the January attack on a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

Netanyahu, who has been outspoken about the perceived threats facing Jews in France and upset Paris by encouraging French Jews to move to Israel in the wake of January's attack, seems well placed to capitalise on these fears at the voting booths.

"(Only) Netanyahu can find the solutions to the problems of new immigrants from France," Yuli Edelstein, a Likud politician and current Speaker of the Knesset, recently told a rally organised for French speakers in Jerusalem, AFP reported.

Winning votes from the right

But this does not mean that parties further on the political left should give up hope of winning the French vote, says Shain.

“With so many new immigrants from France arriving, it’s really premature to say how they are going to vote,” he says, pointing out that little to no polling of the new arrivals has been carried out.

Added to this is the quickly shifting landscape of Israeli politics.

“You have all these new parties coming through, centrist parties, that they (the French immigrants) could vote for,” Shain added.

Kulanu, established in November 2014 on a platform focussing on economic and cost-of-living issues, is among these new parties hoping to draw French voters away from the right.

“Many of them left France because of tensions there with the Muslim community, and this has made them quite hardline politically,” Eli Alaluf, the party’s third in command, admitted in an interview with Israel's Haaretz newspaper in February. “Still, I believe we can convince considerable numbers to vote for us.”

Kulanu can do this by appealing to them on issues that are common concerns to all Israelis, such as housing prices, he said.

Shain agrees this is tactic that could bear fruit.

“After coming here many are adopting domestic issues – the same as other Israelis – schools, the economy, for example,” he said.

Whichever way French Jews cast their ballots on Tuesday, it is unlikely to be the last time Israel’s political hopefuls go out of their way to court their votes.

With the Jewish Agency for Israel predicting some 15,000 more French Jews will settle in Israel this year alone, they are a group whose influence in Israeli politics is only set to grow.

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