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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Israelis Fight for Interior Post

JERUSALEM -- A pre-election battle between Russians and Moroccans over the powerful Interior Ministry took a hard turn Wednesday when the incumbent minister pledged to keep out Russian "forgers, cheats and call girls."

Israel B'Aliya, a party of immigrants from the former Soviet Union headed by former dissident Natan Sharansky, has focused its campaign toward a May 17 vote on wresting the ministry from the ultra-Orthodox, Moroccan-dominated Shas party.

Israel B'Aliya has broadcast Russian-language ads punctuated by the phrase, "Interior Ministry in Shas' control? No! Interior Ministry in OUR control!"

Shas, which has controlled the ministry for most of the last 15 years, has blocked new immigrant privileges to many of the nearly 1 million Jews who have arrived since the collapse of the Soviet Union began in 1989.

Shas says that many of the former Soviets are not Jewish according to religious law.

Interior Minister Eli Suissa hit back Wednesday in a radio spot in which he pledged that Sharansky's party would not stop him from keeping "the forgers, cheats, the call girls and others from entering the state of Israel with dignity."

Sharansky said that Suissa's comments turned a "legitimate political competition between the parties ... into a struggle that pits one ethnic group against another."

Communications Minister Limor Livnat, who heads the campaign for the Likud Party, said she had not heard Suissa's comments - but said if he was accurately quoted, they were "very grave."

The late reaction could prove embarrassing: Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed his opponent, Ehud Barak, for not immediately condemning a supporter who had referred to Jews of Middle Eastern background as "riffraff."

Shas spokesmen said they were trying to contain the acrimony and noted that a television version of the ad - featuring a film of Tel Aviv's red-light district and images of Russians swilling vodka - had been shelved.

The battle over the ministry lands Netanyahu between two constituencies that helped him to power in 1996.

Israelis cast separate ballots for prime minister and for parliament, and prime ministerial candidates avidly seek smaller parties' endorsements. Shas is firmly behind Netanyahu, but Sharansky has yet to endorse a candidate.

Netanyahu, appearing at a news conference with Sharansky to announce increased benefits for veterans of the Soviet army, said he would "not rule out" appointing Sharansky interior minister in the next government.

Each side closely watches the other for slip-ups in campaigning.

A Russian-language biography of Barak distributed to former Soviets came under the microscope Wednesday when Likud activists revealed that the book quoted Barak as saying that east Jerusalem was "Arab land."

Netanyahu's campaign portrays him as the only candidate strong enough to stand up to Palestinian demands for the disputed eastern part of the city. The Likud has described Barak's pledges to keep the city united as hiding Labor's true plans.

"The text was just edited for the Russian copy but wasn't edited enough and fell between the hands of the political censor there [at the Labor party]," Netanyahu said Wednesday.

Labor said the book translation was sabotaged. The translator said that the passage was not on the original diskette that she handed over to the publisher.

Yehuda Schiff, a publisher of the book, insisted the passage was not in the original. "It could be that between six different printings something went wrong," Schiff said on television. "I'm not sure if it was intentional or not."