ASHQELON, Israel -- In the crowd at the Russian Delicatesse in this seaside town, the candidates competing to be Israel's next prime minister should head for Tatiana Vilensky, the round-faced former music teacher slicing ham behind the counter.
Vilensky, 45, arrived in Israel from her native Belarus 2 1/2 years ago. She has never voted in an Israeli election. Like thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, she hasn't decided for whom to vote in the May 17 elections.
"I'm pondering, for and against," Vilensky said of the candidates clamoring for her vote.
In 1996, Israelis from the former Soviet Union voted overwhelmingly for Benjamin Netanyahu in his surprise win over then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres. But recent polls have shown Netanyahu's popularity among these 680,000 voters to be slipping. And the prime minister is scrambling to retain his edge among the "Russians," as they are called here.
Netanyahu "would need at least 60 percent of the Russian vote if he were to sneak in," said Hannoch Smith, a veteran Israeli pollster.
Sitting Wednesday between the leaders of the main party of Russian immigrants, Netanyahu pledged more aid to their constituents. He reportedly has promised key Cabinet posts to Natan Sharansky, the head of the Israel B'Aliya party and a coalition partner who has refused to endorse a candidate in the prime minister's race.
This came after Netanyahu's leading challenger, Ehud Barak, announced that he would wrest control of the Interior Ministry -- which the Russians desperately want -- from a prominent ultra-Orthodox religious party backing Netanyahu.
Barak, the opposition Labor Party leader campaigning under the banner of One Israel, has not explicitly offered the Interior Ministry to Sharansky, but he recognized that taking the Cabinet post from the ultra-religious Shas party would serve him well among undecided Russian voters.
Israel B'Aliya has made control of the Interior Ministry its top election campaign priority. The ministry has caused numerous problems for new Russian immigrants by challenging their Jewish ancestry and bids for Israeli citizenship.
Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and Netanyahu's trade minister, knows well that the fulfillment of promises from any candidate depends on his party's ability to get enough votes to be important in the forming of the next government.
"I don't believe anyone will give it to us as a gesture," he said in an interview.
Sharansky estimates that 35 percent of the 812,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have settled here since 1989 are undecided. And, he noted, if 15,000 to 20,000 of the Russian Netanyahu voters "change their minds, you will have a new prime minister."
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union account for about 20 percent of Israel's nearly 6 million people. In some Israeli cities, Russian-language newspapers sell better than Hebrew papers. Restaurant menus and store signs are printed in Russian. Russian scientists and artists are busy at work. Three years ago, there was one Russian party. Now there are three, including a party headed by Netanyahu's former chief of staff , Avigdor Lieberman.
A tough sell
But attracting the Russian vote is tricky business.
"When you have 60 percent of the [Russian] public who have more than 15 years of education, you cannot come with a simple message and win," said Marina Solodkin, a sociologist and Knesset member from Israel B'Aliya.
Among Israel's most educated citizens, many Russians had difficulty getting jobs in their former professions. They rate education, housing and jobs as their top concerns. Their disdain for the Communist system makes any candidate with a socialist past suspect.
In the same vein, many Russians distrust military figures. And yet, they routinely espouse hawkish views on the country's security and the peace process.
In the world's only Jewish state, Russians are predominantly secular. About 200,000 of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union are non-Jews who came here with Jewish spouses. In a society in which the chief rabbis control civil matters pertaining to births, marriages and burials, their families face myriad problems. The stories of couples who can't legally marry here, prove their Jewish heritage or find a place to be buried are numerous.
Barak, the 57-year-old former Israeli army chief of staff, highlighted the plight of Russians during the Passover holiday, when an Israeli soldier from the former Soviet Union was among his guests.
The soldier told Barak that his mother had left Israel because the Interior Ministry had denied her request to remain because she could not prove that at least one of her grandparents was Jewish, as the law requires.