Knesset Members honored the esteemed career of retiring MK Natan Sharansky Monday in ceremonies at the plenum and the Likud faction meeting. In his departing speech, Sharansky told the Knesset that he was "deeply worried" not only about the external threats to Israel's security, but by the public's waning faith in its leaders. "I'm sure that everyone here will do their best to prevent an existential threat," Sharansky said, "but there is a growing feeling that our leaders, our ministers, are abandoning principles in order to remain in power longer."
Analysis: Sharansky's legacy
During the farewell ceremony, Sharansky was praised by several top political officials for the "overwhelming example" he set as a Knesset member.
"I don't want to talk about the man in the personal aspect. I want to talk about Natan Sharansky as a symbol, a role model, a representative figure, as a figure that is rare in our world," said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Sharansky reminded those present that he had served in four governments and quit twice, rather than follow policy with which he disagreed.
"People have been saying 'Change the system of elections, and everything will be fine,'" he said. "I think we do need to change the system, but that's not a cure-all."
"I want to tell my colleagues, we have great power to influence what happens in Israel, to the Jewish people, and throughout the world," Sharansky said. Adding that he intends to keep working for Israel and Jews worldwide, the former Prisoner of Zion called on the country's leaders to "work together."
On a confessional note, Sharansky said he had never planned to enter the political arena, as he had believed his activism on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union would be better served by remaining politically unaffiliated. However, he said, his ten-year struggle had succeeded "greatly," and so he decided to turn to the problems faced by new immigrants in Israel.
"I decided that new olim needed help integrating into Israeli society," Sharansky said. "Help overcoming the suspicion [they faced], and help in overcoming the paternalism of a society that loves new olim but tells them 'sit quietly - we'll decide for you.'"
Immigrants had to take their places in the corridors of power, Sharansky said, and that was why he founded Yisrael B'Aliyah, which - in addition to the immigrants themselves, who made great contributions to the nation in academia and in the army - was a major factor in assisting immigrant absorption.
"I don't regret a moment," Sharansky said of his political career.
Referring to the praise heaped on his life's work by politicians from all ends of the political spectrum, Sharansky said he was fortunate, as most people had to "die to hear these kinds of things."
Likud Party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu said Sharansky symbolized the concept of freedom. "Your mission isn't over - go fight on another front," Netanyahu exhorted Sharansky, who plans to occupy himself with research and teaching.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres, who followed Netanyahu at the podium, told Sharansky that while he differed with him on many issues, "there was no one [he] admired more." Meretz Party Chairman Yossi Beilin urged Sharansky not to rest on his laurels now that he would not be active in politics.
"Don't be content to be 'just a legend,'" Beilin said, at the end of a speech in which he enumerated Sharansky's contributions to Israel.
Earlier in the day, Sharansky told the Likud faction that convened to honor him that he felt he had gone from hell to heaven when he left a Soviet prison and made aliya. He said that he would remain active in Likud politics and support Netanyahu's efforts to return to power.
In every role he had had in his career, Sharansky said he had worked on advancing the same ideals: "Zionism, democracy, human rights and chess." He said he would continue fighting for those issues.
Sharansky said he left the Knesset to head the Shalem Center's Institute for Strategic Studies because strategic thinking was missing in the decisions of Israeli governments.
"It was one of the biggest disappointments for me to see that government decisions were made based on narrow political considerations and not on proper strategic thinking," Sharansky said.
Netanyahu recalled making a promise to Sharansky's wife Avital in 1982 that her husband would not die in jail. He said he was honored to have given him the opportunity to return to his Russian jail cell as a visiting cabinet minister a decade after he left it.
Likud MKs praised Sharansky and joked about whether he had more fun and better conditions in the Knesset or prison.
Former foreign minister Silvan Shalom called Sharansky an Israeli hero, who "bridged the gaps" between immigrants and veterans and the religious and secular. He questioned why Sharansky received greater respect abroad than in Israel and predicted that he would one day return to public life.
"The twentieth century will be remembered for three freedom fighters: Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu and Natan Sharansky," MK Yuval Steinitz said. "Sharansky caused the end of the evil empire. He is one of the greatest leaders the Jewish nation has ever known."
Sharansky served as head of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the Ministry on Jerusalem Affairs.
On Sunday, Sharansky submitted his letter of resignation to Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. Haim Katz, who was accused of buying votes during the previous Knesset, will replace Sharansky later this week.