JERUSALEM, May 2 (JTA) — Forever the rebel with a cause, Soviet-refusenik-turned-democracy- proponent Natan Sharansky has left the Israeli government rather than take part in the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Sharansky tendered his resignation as Diaspora affairs minister Monday, accusing the Sharon government of failing to demand Palestinian reform as a prerequisite to peace moves. “As you know, I have opposed the disengagement plan from the beginning, on the grounds that I believe any concessions in the peace process must be linked to democratic reforms within Palestinian society,” Sharansky wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “I no longer feel that I can faithfully serve in a government whose central policy — indeed, sole raison d’etre — has become one to which I am so adamantly opposed.” Sharon, who lost two right-wing coalition partners and a Cabinet member from his own Likud Party last year over the plan to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank this summer, took Sharansky’s walkout in stride. He voiced regret at the decision and thanked Sharansky for “combating anti-Semitism the world over.” It was not immediately clear who would inherit the Diaspora affairs portfolio. In any event, Sharansky pledged in his letter, “I will continue my lifelong efforts to contribute to the unity and strength of the Jewish people both in Israel and in the Diaspora.” By quitting the Cabinet, Sharansky effectively finds himself outside of Israeli politics, because he does not hold a Knesset seat. But his shift to private citizen seemed to many to be a natural move for the author of the recent best-seller “The Case for Democracy,” which President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly praised. The Jerusalem Post speculated that Sharansky would focus on promoting the book. Sharansky already was absent from Monday’s Cabinet meeting, where former colleagues commended his resignation as an act of integrity. Dalia Itzik of the Labor Party suggested that Sharansky had stayed in office in the hope of seeing the Gaza plan somehow rescinded. “It seems he realized that disengagement is going ahead after all, and drew his own conclusions,” she told reporters. But Meir Sheetrit of Likud took issue with Sharansky’s reasoning. “The prime minister has always insisted that until there is democracy in the Palestinian Authority, there will be no peace talks. The disengagement from Gaza is a unilateral, intermediate step done for Israel’s good,” he said. Despite polls showing that most Israelis support the Gaza plan, it has deepened rancor among right-wing segments of Israeli society to the point where some officials fear there may be major civil strife. Concern for the Jewish state’s internal harmony was another motivation cited in Sharansky’s letter. “We are heading toward a terrible rift in the nation, and to my great chagrin I feel that the government is making no serious effort to prevent it,” he wrote. Sharansky was jailed in the Soviet Union in 1977 on charges of spying for the United States. He spent a decade in Soviet prisons before international pressure forced the Soviet government to allow him to leave.
Sharansky quits Israeli government