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

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.