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With Party Down, Natan Sharansky Lands on His Feet on Sharon Team

February 11, 2003
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On a brisk February night in 1986, a short, pale and balding man, who gained international acclaim as the leader of the Jewish refusenik movement in the Soviet Union, stepped off a plane at Ben-Gurion Airport and into Israeli legend.

Ten years later, when he decided to leverage his reputation for courage and integrity as a political candidate, Natan Sharansky shocked Israel’s political establishment when his new immigrant-rights party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, won seven seats in its first election.

Since then the party’s fortunes have steadily declined, and on Jan. 28 the myth of Natan Sharansky seemed shattered: Yisrael Ba’Aliyah won just two seats in Israel’s latest elections, and Sharansky resigned from the Knesset.

Israeli politicians never die, however, they just reincarnate.

Following a short post-election vacation — and 17 years to the day after he stepped onto the Ben-Gurion Airport tarmac — Sharansky struck a deal with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to merge Yisrael Ba’Aliyah into the Likud, the Knesset’s most powerful party.

A cartoon Sunday in the mass circulation daily Yediot Achronot showed a gnome-like Sharansky scurrying up a ladder leaning against a giant Sharon. Playing on the name of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah — which can mean “Israel on the rise” — the cartoon said that Sharansky really was the one rising.

Under the terms of his agreement with Sharon, Sharansky will become a minister without portfolio, responsible for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs. He also is expected to have a seat in the small inner Cabinet that authorizes Israeli military operations.

In exchange, the addition of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah’s two seats increases the Likud’s representation to 40 in the 120-seat Knesset.

Aides and pundits called Sharansky’s decision to resign his Knesset seat a magnanimous decision. And joining Sharon, at a time when Yisrael Ba’Aliyah has the support of only about 2 percent of the Israeli electorate, was a wise one, the pundits said.

Despite what may seem a demotion from his post in the last government, when he oversaw an annual budget of hundreds of millions of shekels in the Housing and Construction Ministry, many say Sharansky is perfect for the Diaspora affairs post.

Bobby Brown, an adviser to the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a senior adviser on Diaspora affairs to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, praised the move.

“Most Knesset members now serving were born and raised in Israel. They don’t have the experience of living abroad and making aliyah, and so can’t really understand what that entails,” Brown said.

Sharansky is sensitive to the plight of immigrants, but not only those hailing from the former Soviet Union, Brown said.

For example, Sharansky managed to push through amendments to new tax laws that would have taxed immigrants’ pensions and other overseas funds. Many had warned that the new taxes would discourage immigration to Israel from prosperous western countries.

Furthermore, Sharansky appears to be a good successor to Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s first minister for Diaspora affairs, whose party was affiliated with Labor.

“Melchior made it a real ministry, and I see Sharansky taking it a step further to give Jewish communities abroad a voice in Israel, and vice-versa,” Brown said.

Sharansky says his party’s apparent failure in the last elections actually is a sign of success.

“I’ve been saying ever since the birth of the party that it is a tool for reaching a specific social aim: integration,” Sharansky said.

Its success in that field carried a price tag — the party’s obsolescence.

“Already in 1996 I said that our aim is to get into the process of integration to empower” immigrants “to open doors, so they can enter the rooms where the decisions are made,” he told JTA in a telephone interview. “It was a unique experiment.”

Sharansky says his party helped propel local politicians to the deputy mayor positions in 20 municipalities. That has created a base for Russian representation in the crucial lower rungs of Israeli politics, he said.

Almost 800,000 recent immigrants form the former Soviet Union were registered for the Jan. 28 elections. That only 8 percent of them voted for a party that aims to represent their interests shows how quick their integration into Israeli society has been, Sharansky said.

Indeed, almost 15 years after the massive wave of immigration began as the Soviet Union crumbled, Russians rank among Israel’s top businessmen, scientists, and even young army officers.

Inertia prevented Yisrael Ba’Aliyah from changing to reflect that reality, so the party essentially disintegrated, Sharansky said.

Public opinion experts faulted Yisrael Ba’Aliyah’s campaign managers, arguing that the party had focused on the concerns of elderly immigrants, while hardly reaching out to Russian youth.

Even the four pillars of Sharansky’s political philosophy — that peace is impossible before Israel’s neighbors practice democracy; the need for compromise to bridge the religious-secular divide; the need for electoral reform; and the need for a smaller, decentralized government — failed to move young voters.

“Young Russian Israelis consider themselves young Israelis and are not looking for an immigrant party, but an Israeli party that might also cater to their interests,” public opinion analyst Dahlia Schendlin said.

Sharansky says most of the party’s voters moved to Likud, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah’s ally for the past several years. Likud officials say the Likud gained about nine Knesset seats from immigrant votes.

While he doesn’t have the charisma of some politicians in the television age, Sharansky continues to exude the determination that kept him sane for nine years as a Prisoner of Zion in solitary confinement.

Both Sharon and Netanyahu have changed positions over the years on the idea of a Palestinian state. Yet Sharansky rarely has wavered in his belief that only a democratic Palestinian state is a viable peace partner for Israel — and can serve its citizens well.

Likewise, he consistently has called for electoral reform in Israel and for smaller, more decentralized government.

As for his political future, Sharansky is not pessimistic. He has a strong ally in Sharon, who was among those Sharansky embraced at Ben-Gurion upon his arrival in 1986 and was the first person to call him after he announced his resignation.

Sharansky is content to play a smaller role, relinquishing the symbolic title of deputy prime minister and getting down to work in “the things I know, understand and can do without having the backing of members in Knesset: the Diaspora and Jerusalem portfolios.”

“I no longer have the power to defend heavy budgets from cuts, so we’ll have to start again with the little things,” he admits, contentedly.

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