Analysis: Sharansky's legacy

He will remain the most recognizable face of the international campaign to free Soviet Jewry.

natan sharansky 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
natan sharansky 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A generation from now, no one will remember Natan Sharansky's political career, but that doesn't mean that Sharansky himself will be forgotten. Far from it. His name and the story of his lone battle against the might of the Soviet empire will still be mentioned together with those of Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and he will remain the most recognizable face of the international campaign to free Soviet Jewry. Sharansky's later work will also be cited for many decades and he will always be regarded as a leading light in our era's war for the future of democracy. None of this has anything to do with his decade in the Knesset, however. It's not that Sharansky's parliamentary career was all bad. In his first two elections as the head of Yisrael B'Aliya, the party did quite well, gaining enough votes to secure a place in the governments of Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, as well as significant cabinet portfolios for Sharansky. But that's basically all. It would be hard to find a major initiative of lasting effect that Sharansky came up with as trade and industry, interior, or housing and construction minister, or an instance in which he used his party's weight to influence the government's policies. Of course Sharansky might have been doing a lot behind the scenes for the welfare of his ex-Soviet constituents, but eventually they felt the need for a bit more excitement and deserted him at the ballot box. After receiving a meager two Knesset seats in the 2003 election, Yisrael B'Aliya merged into the Likud and Sharansky was named minister for Jerusalem affairs, the Diaspora and fighting anti-Semitism, a role for which he was eminently qualified but that didn't entail any real political power. In May 2005, he resigned over Sharon's disengagement plan, a prelude to his eventual departure from politics. The question of why a man with Sharansky's history and capabilities can't succeed in politics almost answers itself. "He's no politician and it's a good idea to be one if you're in politics," said a former aide after Sharansky's farewell Knesset session. "He's a man of ideas, not of people. Those who worked with him up close loved him, but that's not enough. His supporters admire him either for his ideology or else, if they don't agree with him, then at least they respect him as an intellectual. But that's not enough to motivate the masses." There's a great deal of irony in Sharansky's latest achievement - the growth of his influence abroad - through his best-seller The Case for Democracy, a fixture on George W. Bush's bookshelf, while his influence here has considerably diminished. The failure of Sharansky's party in 2003 was seen as a good sign for Israeli society, an indication that the immigrant community had begun its assimilation process and had little need anymore for a minority party of its own; hence the decision to join the Likud. Avigdor Lieberman shattered this complacency with his mammoth gain in this year's election, based mainly on the "Russian" vote. How was the constituency that Sharansky had seemingly dissolved resurrected? Lieberman didn't base his attraction on promises to take care of the immigrants' everyday social rights. He offered them something less tangible but much more powerful - a strong leader, one who is forceful enough to deal with the native Israeli politicians on his own terms and to beat them at their own game. Sharansky was an icon for his voters and many other Israelis, an image that was tarnished by his descent into the political bear pit. As memories of a wasted decade fade, he might succeed in regaining his old status.