The former dissident who became the symbol of the struggle for Soviet Jewry and whose ideas on democracy in the Middle East were hailed by President Bush is quitting Israeli politics.
Natan Sharansky announced last week that he would resign his post in the Knesset after 10 years, a time period in which he went from a leader of an important immigrant party to backbench politician in the Likud opposition. Sharansky, who is expected to resign formally November 15, intends to rejoin the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based right-leaning think tank, where he will head a new program on strategic studies.
He is refraining from granting public interviews regarding his resignation, but the Israeli media quoted sources close to him as saying that he felt he could do more in academia than in the Knesset.
Sharansky’s failure in the Israeli political arena stands in sharp contrast to his success and popularity overseas, especially in America. In much the same way that former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev is hailed as a statesman abroad even as he is ridiculed at home, Sharanksy remains an iconic figure in the United States despite his serial disappointments in Israeli politics.
In addition to being a hero to many American Jews who played an active role in the struggle to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s, Sharansky has become an influential figure in neoconservative circles and a favorite of President Bush. The president told reporters in 2004 that if they wanted to understand his agenda for the Middle East, they should read Sharansky’s latest book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom To Overcome Tyranny and Terror.”
“If there is one thing that frustrated Natan,” said Ron Dermer, who co-authored the book with Sharansky, “it is his failure to convince the Israelis to accept his ideas.”
Dermer, who attended Sharansky’s White House sit-down with Bush in November 2004, recalled that after the meeting — which drew scant coverage in the Israeli press — the former dissident excitedly said, “We got the ear of the most important man in the world.” The excitement eventually turned into frustration when Israeli leaders rejected Sharansky’s idea of tying Israeli concessions to democratic reforms in the Arab world.
“He felt that he had the solution to the problems of the region and that even after he convinced the leader of the free world, he is still being ignored in his own country,” Dermer said.
In his frequent visits to Washington, Sharansky always found open doors to the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Yet in Israel he was constantly pushed to the sidelines.
Sharansky entered politics in 1996, as his newly founded Yisrael Ba’aliyah party picked up seven seats with a platform advocating increased assistance to the 1 million new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. During the next few years he held several prestigious portfolios, including the posts of Interior minister, Housing minister and minister of Industry. However, his political power soon began to wane. His party dropped to six seats from seven in the next elections and then to only two, forcing Sharansky to fold his dwindling faction into the Likud.
“Sharansky wasted the huge credit he had, because he did not push forward any agenda,” said Yaron Deckel, a leading political analyst in Israel who works for Channel One TV. According to Deckel, Sharansky did not leave his mark on any of the ministries he headed and did not use his political power to break past his natural constituency of the new immigrants. “He will not be remembered as a successful politician,” Deckel concluded.
As his power among new immigrants weakened, Sharansky became the darling of the settlers, positioning himself on the far- right edge of the Likud. He became the first minister to resign from the Sharon government over the disengagement plan. Sharansky quickly made a play for the chairmanship of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, a body funded and controlled in part by Jewish philanthropists in North America. In a rare setback on the Diaspora stage, Sharansky’s leadership bid was beaten back by Sharon. He logged a stint at the Shalem Center before rejoining the Likud after Sharon bolted to launch the new Kadima party.
Sharansky remained close to the new Likud leader, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but was not seen as a significant electoral asset.
During the last term of the Knesset, Sharansky had one of the worst attendance records, spending much of his time abroad, on speaking tours and participating in international events to combat antisemitism. He is still a popular draw at Jewish and pro-Israel events in America. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who is the founder and president of the Israel Project, a Washington-based group that works to boost Israel’s image in the media, feels that Sharansky comes across very well to both Jewish and non-Jewish crowds. “He has a thick accent, but he is very articulate and has an excellent command of the English language,” she said.
According to Laszlo Mizrahi, for American Jews Sharansky always will be the great hero of the fight for Soviet Jewry, a struggle that shaped the Jewish community at the time. “In the Diaspora, we need people with visionary ideas, just like Sharansky,” she said.
Beginning next month, Sharansky will try to harness his visionary ideas at the new think tank he will head at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. The new outfit will focus on dealing with the strategic threats facing Israel, especially from Iran, and will include former chief of staff of the Israeli military Moshe Ya’alon, another critic of the Gaza pullout; Michael Oren, a Middle East historian who backed disengagement but also has pressed for a more hawkish approach to other foreign policy challenges facing Israel and the West, and Martin Kramer, a scholar who has led a campaign against what he describes as anti-American anti-Israeli scholars on American campuses.
Sharansky also will continue to work on his new book, focusing on national identities and on the role they play in global politics. “He may be leaving politics, but his voice will still be heard,” Dermer predicted. Sharansky’s co-author added, “He might turn out to be the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Israeli politics.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.