Sharansky's Zionism

by Gerald Steinberg in Jerusalem, The Canadian Jewish News, August 27, 1998

Since Natan Sharansky began to play a major political role in Israel, his image has gone through a number of ups and downs.

In the 1996 elections, his party, Yisrael b'Aliyah, was far more successful than had been expected. As a result, Sharansky demanded and gained a cabinet seat as minister of commerce and industry.

In contrast to many of his colleagues, he was also able to work with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and despite his lack of political experience, the former prisoner of Zion became a central figure in the government. He is responsible for foreign policy with respect to Russia, and is a member of the small "kitchen cabinet" involved in determining strategy for negotiations with the Palestinians.

However, as Netanyahu and his government became involved in scandals and was seen as indecisive and divided, Sharansky did not escape criticism. His party was riven by factionalism and personality disputes, and many analysts argued that he was not devoting enough time to the problems of the Ministry for Commerce and Industry.

Secular Israelis were angry when Sharansky did not use the large number of mixed marriages among Russian Jews to attack the official rabbinate, and the left expected a more conciliatory position with respect to the Palestinians, as a counter to hard-liners in the government.

Among the Israeli public, none of this criticism has stuck, and Sharansky is emerging as a new Zionist voice. This is most apparent in his demands that any Israeli agreement on territorial withdrawal in negotiations with the Palestinians must be preceded by a change in Palestinian behavior and rhetoric. In these talks, Sharansky is unwavering, insisting that the Palestinians first rewrite their charter, school books and other official documents to remove all the language that denies the legitimacy of Israel and Zionism.

Sharansky's position on this issue reflects his extraordinary personal experience and his total commitment to Zionism, as well as his understanding of the enemies of Israel. As a result of his own history in the Soviet Union, Sharansky knows that the language and signals sent by the Palestinian leadership, from Yasser Arafat down, still fundamentally reject the legitimacy of Zionism and Israel as a Jewish State. In debates with the American Jews in the U.S. State Department who are centrally involved in the negotiations, Sharansky displays the evidence that the Palestinian goal of eliminating the Jewish state has not changed. With increasing conviction, he argues that this and not questions over land and other technical issues, is the main obstacle to peace. This position resonates with the views of a large number of ordinary Israelis, and along with his sharp sense of humor and his own modesty, it has contributed to Sharansky's political support across a wide section of society.

Perhaps more than anyone else alive during this 50th year of Israeli independence, Sharansky and his wife, Avital, have consistently dedicated themselves to the Zionist dream of Jewish independence and security. Like thousands of other Soviet Jews, Sharansky's views were formed by the events of 1967, when the Arabs prepared to reverse the results of the 1948 war, and to "push the Jews into the sea."

Joining the underground movement that worked to gain freedom for the three million Jews locked behind the iron Curtain, he was dedicated to the goal of mass aliyah to Israel. For these actions, he was repeatedly interrogated by the KGB and spent many years in the prison camps in Siberia. In this crucible, his passion for Zionism and sharp insight into the dynamics of hatred and hostility not only endured but were strengthened.

Sharansky's background experiences led him to see what many other Israeli leaders and eager American (and Canadian) peace-makers have missed - that the key issue in the negotiations with the Palestinians is not the quantity of land to turn over or to hod, but rather, the quality of the peace. As an intense Zionist, Sharansky understands that until the leaders, from Arafat to the teachers and journalists, mount a sustained and intense campaign to tell the Palestinian masses that the Jewish state is a permanent and legitimate part of the Middle East, there will be no real peace for Israel.

This Zionist commitment is expressed in other areas as well - including Sharansky's efforts to define a middle and constructive role for religious law and the Chief Rabbinate, and the importance he places on the unity of the Jewish people. It is probably too early to discuss an even wider political role for Sharansky, and he currently lacks a wide party base to run for prime minister. However, it is clear that over the coming years, his importance and impact as a Zionist leader will increase.

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