Natan Sharansky as an open book

Relaxed and calm while wrapping up the latest chapter in an eventful life, the outgoing Jewish Agency head speaks out on the most pressing issues of the day.

Natan Sharansky  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Natan Sharansky
“Well, whomever your successor is, he or she will have big shoes to fill,” this reporter comments to Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky at the conclusion of our interview.
“Not really,” he said, pointing to his feet. “I wear such small shoes that they don’t have my size in most stores in the United States.”
Despite the pressing issues discussed when The Jerusalem Post sat down with him last week, Sharansky maintained that jovial and humble tone throughout the ninety-minute conversation where he revealed his thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Natalie Portman and others.
The interview took place a day before Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog announced that he had been offered the coveted role. And while his shoes are probably significantly larger than Sharansky’s, the outgoing Chairman of the Jewish Agency has done much to transform the organization.
He has streamlined the shlichut (emissary) program, making it leaner and more cost-effective to attract younger schlichim (emissaries) to its Project TEN program, which offers developing countries around the world Jewish volunteers to help with their agricultural and educational needs.
As far as Sharansky is concerned, though, walking away from the Jewish Agency is not an end.
“I’m not stepping down from anything. I’m changing one title to another. After all, from 1982, for 36 years, I’ve being doing the same thing, to strengthen the connection between Jews and the State of Israel,” he said, keeping his concrete plans for the future vague.
Strengthening a connection is exactly what Sharansky was fighting for when he confronted Netanyahu, after the prime minister chose to freeze the highly anticipated Western Wall deal.
“I feel that he let the Jewish people down. He personally initiated these four years of very important negotiations over the Kotel, and then the historic decision by the government, which I have no doubt will sooner or later be implemented. The platform was built for it, and then at some moment, he was blackmailed by some of the haredi parties, and he froze this decision,” Sharansky lamented.
“I think it was a very big setback in relations between the American Jewish community and Israel, and still remains a big problem. It’s not so easy to rebuild the trust that was destroyed, so I continue to be very critical of this, but it has nothing to do with our personal relations.”
SHARANSKY ALSO commended Netanyahu for his ability to get along with Trump, and Russian President Vladimir Putin – despite his involvement in Syria.
“I would say that if there’s a place where the warmness of Russian-Israeli relations is proved, it is Syria,” Sharansky said.
“Bibi Netanyahu has proved to be very successful with both Putin and Trump. With Trump, he stopped the awful agreement with Iran, which is exactly what we wanted, and moved the embassy to Jerusalem. Putin gave a green light to have the broadest operations in Syrian skies in 45 years,” he said. “The fact that we have the relative freedom to act against Hezbollah and Iran is extremely important, and here I have to say many compliments to our prime minister for dancing between the raindrops.”
The consummate diplomat, Sharansky always ensures that if he has a criticism against someone, there is always a compliment or two to follow. His views on Putin are no exception.
“I was an activist of two movements; of human rights in the Soviet Union and of the Jewish movement. As a Jewish activist, I can say a lot of good things about Putin; as an activist of the human rights movement, I can say nothing good about Putin. But it is unique that in a thousand years of Russian history, the leader of Russia is not antisemitic,” Sharansky said.
“On the other hand, he’s not a Democrat, and yet the attitude toward Israel is good. But he sees it as a Russian-speaking Jewish country, and the regime there is built in such a way that everyone listens to their leader. On the other hand, Russia has national policies where Israel’s interests are not at the top of their priorities, which is sometimes very problematic. Iran and Syria are its partners in building their anti-American policy and confrontation with the United States of America.”
SHARANSKY GAVE the always controversial Trump a compliment or two as well, by lauding his decisions to move the embassy and initiate the historic meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“The fact that he has a historical meeting with the North Korean president is very good. But why does he have to say that this dictator loves his people and his people love him. Reagan would never have said that,” Sharansky added.
Sharansky was referring to Trump’s comment that seemed to gloss over the dictator’s many human rights abuses: “He’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that.”
While Sharansky doesn’t think that the president is executing a clearly thought-out strategy regarding foreign policy, he does commend the “common sense” he’s injected on the diplomatic stage.
“Now there is a president who made it very clear, and said to the Palestinians: ‘If you are not going to negotiate peace, we are not going to support you.’ After he said that, I thought, my God, it’s so elementary, it’s so obvious. Why should anyone in the world be prepared to pay large sums of money if they’re not prepared to negotiate peace? He said it and he’s absolutely right,” Sharansky asserted. “He brings elementary common sense to the table.”
Elementary common sense, then, seemed to be behind the decision to award Natalie Portman with the Genesis Prize this year. The actress had a long record of supporting Israel and the Jewish people, is successful around the world and is a worthy champion of feminist values.
Sharansky, who was the chairman of the prize-selection committee, believed at the time that selecting Portman was an inspired and wise choice. And despite her surprising decision to not come to Israel and accept the prize, Sharansky stands by the organization’s pick.
“Of course I was very upset she decided to not accept her prize,” he said. “I don’t think Natalie Portman wanted to support BDS in any way, but in fact she did it – maybe not intentionally but she did. It’s very unfortunate for us.”
No matter how polarizing the personality he spoke about, as a man who has seen firsthand the horrors humanity is capable of, taking the good with the bad appears to be Sharansky’s raison d’etre. “We should see good where there’s good, and be ready to be critical over things with which we disagree.”