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Snap Judgment: Natan Sharansky, free at last (JERUSALEM POST) By CALEV BEN-DAVID 05/03/05)Source: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1115086697070 JERUSALEM POST JERUSALEM POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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 premiership.

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." calev@jpost.com (© 1995-2005, The Jerusalem Post 05/03/05)

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