Sharansky Quits Cabinet Over Gaza Plan, Naming Conditions for a Return

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.
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Israeli political resignations usually receive more notice in Israel than in America.

Not this week.

Natan Sharansky’s resignation Monday from his post as Israel’s minister for Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs was front-page news in America, where he is still remembered as a former Soviet refusenik and has become known as a favorite of President Bush. But Israeli newspapers brushed his resignation to the back pages, like another political maneuver in Jerusalem.

When Sharansky resigned from the government, he cited his opposition to Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. In an interview with the Forward on Tuesday, Sharansky said he had opposed the disengagement plan all along but was only convinced in recent weeks that the plan would go ahead.

“If today the prime minister would change his attitude toward disengagement, and ask me to come back, I would go back,” Sharansky said.

It doesn’t seem that Israelis are holding their breath.

“The resignation of Sharansky was something of a nonevent in Israel,” said Alan Abbey, editor of the English-language Web site of Hebrew-language daily Yediot Aharonot. “The local media played it as such. Sharansky’s position here has been largely powerless.”

Sharansky’s stature in the United States can largely be traced to his time as a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. American Jews were rallying to the cause of Soviet Jewry at the same time, and Sharansky became a symbol for a generation of Jews trying to leave the Soviet Union. That stature was elevated this year, when Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror” was praised by President Bush and became something of a policy paper within the Bush administration.

Sharansky’s responsibility for Diaspora affairs gave him a chance to tour the United States extensively. During his tenure, he visited 26 university campuses in America and 16 in Europe, with occasionally mixed receptions. At Rutgers University a student greeted him by shoving a pie in his face.

In Israel, Sharansky founded a party for Russian immigrants that, after losing most of its seats in the last election, was absorbed into the Likud Party. The ministerial responsibilities given to Sharansky — Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs — did not provide him with much power in the government.

“Frankly speaking,” Sharansky told the Forward, “Jerusalem affairs was to a great extent symbolic. The main issues connected to Jerusalem are under other ministers.”

On Diaspora affairs there are also many other government and public bodies doing work, most notably the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for migration to Israel and is designated by law as the liaison between Israel and Diaspora organizations. Sharansky devoted most of his time to the issue of global antisemitism. In particular, he pushed the idea that most criticism of Israel amounts to antisemitism.

“The demonization of Israel is part of the world’s antisemitic campaign,” Sharansky told the Forward. “There was strong resistance to that idea when I started. There still is, but there was a huge change in the approach and the attitudes.”

Sharansky managed to get language suggesting the link between anti-Israel activity and antisemitism into a resolution passed at the 2004 conference in Berlin of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Sharansky also focused a great deal of attention on campuses, including Columbia University. He referred to them as “islands of antisemitism.”

Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Sharansky was a vital voice in these battles.

“Because of his celebrity and name recognition as a prisoner of conscience,” Foxman said, “he had greater access and credibility in the Diaspora dialogue.”

Several other high-profile Diaspora-related issues came to the forefront during Sharansky’s tenure. They included heated debates over Ethiopian immigration, Holocaust commemoration and restitution, questions of Diaspora Jewish identity and demographic decline and, most recently, the proposal to create a new representative body of world Jewry, put forward by a Jewish Agency think tank and taken up by Israeli President Moshe Katsav. In most of these discussions Sharansky remained in the background.

In the end, Sharansky chose to use his greatest political capital to protest Sharon’s disengagement plan — an issue that had little relation to his governmental responsibilities.

Given Sharansky’s status as hero in America, his stand on disengagement created a difficult position for American Jewish groups, which have generally been supportive of the disengagement plan. Many Jewish communal leaders hesitated to comment on the resignation.

Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, said: “We respect Sharansky’s decision. We fully support the government’s plan to disengage from Gaza this summer and we hope that everything works out well.”

In his letter of resignation, Sharansky said the Gaza pullout was not being tied to democratic reforms in Palestinian leadership, and thus it was a “tragic mistake that will exacerbate the conflict with the Palestinians, increase terrorism and dim the prospects of forging a genuine peace.”

Many of Sharansky’s critics have said that his calls for democratic reform are an excuse to avoid negotiations with the Palestinians.

Sharansky said his critics are underselling both him and the Palestinians.

“I’m absolutely sure that all the people in the world, including Palestinians, want to live in a free society,” Sharansky said. “If only we start seeing as our allies not the leaders, but the dissidents, the Palestinians very quickly will say what they want.”

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