(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
MKs Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman both entered Israeli politics in the 1990s, successfully rode the wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, served in multiple cabinet positions and became forces to be reckoned with in Israeli politics.
Both men then attempted to broaden their focus, with different results. Sharansky's Israel Ba'aliya party was swallowed by the Likud after it failed to obtain support outside its Russian-speaking base. Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu rose to 11 seats in the March election and polls published Thursday predicted it could rise to 20 seats and compete with Likud to become Israel's largest party.
This week, the paths of Israel's two most famous Russian speakers crossed again across the top of the newspapers, as Lieberman and Sharansky went in completely different directions. Lieberman is on his way back to the cabinet after he decided to bring Israel Beiteinu into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's governing coalition. Sharansky is on his way back to the Shalem Center after he decided to quit the Knesset and Israeli politics.
If he joins the government, Lieberman is slated to head a new ministry to plan strategy for the looming threat from Iran. Sharansky will do the same as the head of a new Institute for International and Middle East Studies at Shalem, a Jerusalem-based academic institute. Both men still believe that their contributions are necessary to save the country and that their new positions will give them the influence that they require.
After years of competing against each other in political battles, Sharansky and Lieberman will now unite in different capacities against a common foe in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, using their very different strengths, skills, approaches and personalities in an attempt to guarantee Israel's future.
Lieberman used the excuse of changing the governmental system to explain why he is willing to bring his party into the government in return for control of only one ministry. But his conversation with Olmert last Friday, which sparked a week of political developments, focused mainly on Iran and his desire to impact Israel's policy on the issue.
Sharansky decided that he could have more of an impact in academia than on the backbenches of the Knesset, where he has served for 10 years as an MK. US President George W. Bush endorsed his book, The Case For Democracy, and made it a central part of his doctrine while former prime minister Ariel Sharon rejected it, suggesting that Sharansky and his ideas would forever be more popular abroad than at home.
Sources close to Sharansky said it would be wrong to summarize the week by saying that Lieberman succeeded and Sharansky failed, because the latter could end up having considerably more impact without the burdens of Israeli politics. They said that Sharansky achieved all he could in domestic politics and now the best way for him to help his constituency is to fight for Israel on the international stage.
"With the struggles ahead being battled internationally, it's important for Natan to be involved, because if not, Israel will be alone," a source close to the former prisoner of Zion said. "He clarified to the world what people were facing with the Iron Curtain and now he is doing the same with Islamic fascism. Parliamentary committee meetings and votes are important for the country but if he has to be at the Knesset, it leaves him less time to do what he does best: Thinking."
A former Sharansky aide once joked that he "doesn't speak any language fluently." His associates said his strong suits are in the words refined in his writing and in one-on-one talks with the world's movers and shakers who leave meetings with him understanding what more eloquent speakers fail to get across.
The influence that Sharansky has in the White House and the halls of Congress indirectly affects decisions in the Prime Minister's Office back home. But Sharansky's former colleagues said they were upset that he felt he had to leave Israeli politics to sway Israeli policy.
Kadima MK Marina Solodkin, a colleague of Sharansky in Israel Ba'aliya for nearly a decade, said he had many achievements on behalf of immigrants in his cabinet positions and the Knesset for which he was never given credit. She predicted that he could return in a political capacity, such as foreign minister or Jewish Agency chairman, "if the agency is worthy enough for him."
"Natan's departure is very sad for Israeli politics," Solodkin said. "When I heard he was leaving, my heart sank. To lose such a man is a big loss for everyone except him."
Solodkin said she believes Lieberman would never have succeeded if Sharansky had not proven first that an immigrant party could thrive. She said Lieberman learned from Sharansky's successes and failures and ultimately, Lieberman's success would become part of Sharansky's political legacy.
Speculation in the Israeli corridors of power focused this week on why Lieberman was so desperate to join a government that appeared to some to be a sinking ship.
"Lieberman is doing the right thing by joining the government," Solodkin said. "Lieberman is a man who cannot sit on the side doing nothing."
But Lieberman's associates said his goals were not limited to helping improve life in Israel that he described in a Rosh Hashana interview with Hatzofeh as "rotten and stinky." He also wants to help himself politically.
Lieberman's strategists said he is aware that he is taking a political risk by joining the government but he is convinced the gamble will pay off. Lieberman's long-term strategy is to build himself up as a potential candidate for prime minister who can appeal to all security-minded Israelis.
"Joining the government may hurt short-term but it will help long-term," said Israel Beiteinu MK Yuri Shtern, a former colleague of Sharansky in Israel Ba'aliya who defected to Lieberman's party in 1999.
Shtern said that Lieberman was more of a success in Israeli politics because he is "more Israeli than Sharansky." He moved to Israel at age 18 in 1978, eight years before Sharansky's aliya, and was involved in student politics at Hebrew University.
He added that "Lieberman never sacrificed his principles" by joining the government of former prime minister Ehud Barak or remaining too long in Sharon's government that later withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Shtern argued that Lieberman "stayed consistent" even though he now backs a withdrawal from much of the West Bank and Israeli Arab towns inside pre-1967 Israel along demographic lines.
But for Shtern, Lieberman's main advantage over Sharansky is that "he is an expert at getting things done inside the system," something Sharansky struggled with.
Sharansky's former colleagues said it was fitting that he would now focus on promoting Israel from outside the system while Lieberman will remain the insider. Solodkin said Lieberman better fits the Israeli-style of leadership of knowing how to take advantage of the crisis at hand as well as looking to the future.
"Being a chess player hurt Sharansky politically because he was always looking a few steps ahead," she concluded.