Snap Judgment: Natan Sharansky, free at last (JERUSALEM POST) By CALEV BEN-DAVID 05/03/05)
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I´ve got good news for my wife, some of my friends, and my
opponents: I´m not running for the Knesset...
For a few weeks I have been under investigation, accused of having
political ambitions. The charge was more than justified, being based
on my own admission of guilt: I had announced my intentions in an
interview in the Hebrew daily "Yediot Aharonot" on Passover eve. I
did this because I felt that over the last few months the gap
between the needs of the people and the narrow interests of the
political parties had never been so wide, so obvious...
It was only natural under these circumstances that immigrants were
becoming more and more enthusiastic about forming their own party.
Many of my friends and colleagues followed this path, but I strongly
felt that such an effort would reinforce the estrangement of
immigrants from Israeli society, and would be unable to influence
the country as a whole.
Those lines were written by Natan Sharansky in a column he wrote for
The Jerusalem Report 13 years ago this month. If I remember it so
well, it´s because at the time I was Natan´s colleague at the
Report, where he was the Jewish World editor. Having been among the
crowd of thousands at Ben-Gurion Airport in 1986 that cheered his
long-awaited arrival to Israel, I was genuinely honored by the
opportunity to work alongside him. Nor was I disappointed, finding
him every bit as brilliant, warm, unpretentious, passionate and
amusing as his public persona suggested.
As the 1992 election approached, there was indeed much speculation
that Natan would leave the Report and enter politics at the head of
a Russian immigrant party. Four years later that´s exactly what
happened, when he disregarded his own advice and ran for the Knesset
atop the Yisrael B´Aliya list. This week, with his resignation from
the cabinet as minister for Diaspora Affairs, his political career
has for the time being come to an end, and deserves some evaluation.
It´s worth noting that, over the years, some of my fellow
journalists from the Report have written columns expressing a
personal disappointment with Sharansky as his right-leaning politics
became increasingly evident, arguing that his concern for human
rights falls short when it comes to the Palestinians. I don´t share
those feelings because I don´t share their disillusion. Natan´s
essentially neoconservative political orientation (an outlook common
to many Soviet dissidents) was quickly evident to me soon after
meeting him. Obviously one can disagree with his viewpoints – and I
do with several of them – but it´s unfair to argue, as some of his
former admirers have, that he has either fundamentally changed, or
betrayed, his earlier positions.
AT ANY rate, that issue played only a minor factor in his declining
political fortunes, from spearheading Yisrael B´Aliya´s seven-seat
victory in 1996 to its virtual disappearance after dropping to two
seats in the last election and subsequently merging with the Likud.
That party´s downfall doesn´t mean that issues of specific concern
to the Russian immigrant community have lost their electoral
potency; indeed, Shinui tapped into that well of concerns for its
own electoral success at the same time Yisrael B´Aliya was failing.
But Sharansky was simply the wrong man to head a party that billed
itself as specifically representative of Russian (or all immigrant)
Israelis. For one thing, perhaps to his credit, he never had the
parochial mind-set needed for such a project, or even to effectively
serve as a representative politician of any specific local
constituency. It´s no coincidence that The Case For Democracy, his
international best-seller that counts President Bush among its
biggest fans, has little to do with internal Israeli political,
religious and social concerns.
This relates to his ineffectiveness, unwillingness and general lack
of enthusiasm over the past decade to deal with the major problem
directly related to the Russian immigrant community, the
difficulties it faces in grappling with Israel´s Orthodox
establishment. In another of his Jerusalem Report pieces, Sharansky
had gone so far as to suggest that "the Law of Return be changed to
take in anyone whose parents, grandparents or spouse had ever been
called a zhid by a non-Jew." But after entering politics, he took
pains not to upset the religious status quo in a way that would
benefit non-Orthodox (and non-halachicly Jewish) Russian Israelis,
and as a result many deserted him at the polls.
With Avigdor Lieberman outflanking Sharansky on the far right, and
himself not firmly in either the national religious camp or the
Likud´s populist base, he has no electoral base of his own outside
of the relatively small, right-leaning Anglo-Israeli population that
still regards him as the nation´s most admirable public figure.
Along with the global success of The Case For Democracy, this makes
him something like a neoconservative version of Abba Eban, far more
admired abroad (where his cabinet resignation made headlines) than
at home (Yediot gave the story less prominence than the firing of
Israel Broadcasting Authority head Yosef Barel).
There is now again talk of Sharansky seeking (or being sought) as
head of the Jewish Agency. This would be another career misstep for
Natan; he´s certainly too partisan a figure now for such a position,
and at any rate it would distance him from the broader geopolitical
concerns that seem to truly interest him. A more appropriate job
would be Israeli ambassador to the UN, an idea also floated from
time to time, and perhaps one that could become a reality if his
ideological fellow traveler, Binyamin Netanyahu, ever regains the
Far better yet, Natan should exploit the success of The Case For
Democracy to build a platform for himself and his views outside an
Israeli political arena in which he never seemed truly comfortable.
Or, as he himself put it in that column back in 1992: "From this
day, the challenge is to build a new power, outside the Knesset, but
strong enough to penetrate and permeate its halls."
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