'Hero' Bids To Mend Torn Israel

An outspoken member of Netanyahu's Cabinet makes pitch for national unity at a precarious time in Mideast.

In these parts, Natan Sharansky's name has long been preceded by terms like "hero," "prisoner of Zion," and "refusenik." So it came as an unexpected blow when he was booed for the first time in his life - before an audience of Israelis.

In context, Mr. Sharansky was the only member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to address a Tel Aviv rally Nov. 8 marking the second anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, cut down for his decision to trade land for peace with the Palestinians.

But Sharansky's bold move on opposition turf did not lessen the sting of being heckled by a crowd of Jews, who for years had fought for the release of their brethren in the Soviet Union. As someone who demanded the right to emigrate to Israel and paid a heavy personal price for his role as a dissident - with nine years in a Soviet prison - it was an odd welcome for a man who came with the intention of bridging the rifts in Israeli society.

Sharanksy, now the minister of industry and trade, says he is still glad that he decided to address the rally in Mr. Rabin's memory.

"The shouting in the square was the best proof that I was right in coming there," says Sharansky. "We cannot afford to make this killing of Rabin as something that is dividing us."

Sharansky, who swept up seven parliamentary seats last year with a newly established political party representing Russian immigrants, says that the way forward is to form a national unity government. To do so, Mr. Netanyahu would have to break up his right-wing coalition and join forces with the left-wing Labor Party. Such a regime would take a more conciliatory approach to negotiations with the Palestinians and could push mired Middle East peace talks forward.

But Sharansky's support for a unity government comes at a precarious time. Even as his international profile rose this week when he led the Israeli delegation to the Middle East economic summit in Qatar, he faces dwindling support from his immigrant constituents.

"A unity government is a very important step that has to take place in the near future," Sharansky told reporters last week. "Important decisions have to be made," he says, indicating peace negotiations, the war in Lebanon, and a cultural battle between secular and religious Jews.

Yet this is the first time in his career that Sharansky has had to concentrate on solving problems from a seat of authority. Born in Ukraine in 1948, he trained in applied math and physics in Moscow. After trying to obtain a visa to Israel in 1973, he was fired from his job at a Moscow research institute. Arrested by the KGB in 1977, he was charged with spying for the US and spreading anti-Soviet propaganda, a charge related to his role in establishing the Helsinki Monitoring Committee, a human rights watchdog group.

He served his prison term, part of it in solitary confinement, until his release in 1986 as part of an exchange for Eastern bloc spies held by the West.

Though welcomed as a hero then, some of the nearly 800,000 immigrants from the former USSR here were not nearly so impressed. Coming from a communist society where news was controlled, many of them had never heard of Sharansky.

When Zvi Weinberg, a fellow party founder and now a Knesset member, was out campaigning for him last year, he learned that Sharansky was not always a household name. "Many of his most vicious critics said: 'Who is he anyway? There were lots of people in jail.' "

Since then, Sharanksy has become more recognizable. Promising housing, jobs, and dignity for new immigrants who didn't have an adequate share of any of the above, Sharansky won his ministerial portfolio as well as control of the Absorption Ministry, which is in charge of integrating new immigrants.

But unemployment among immigrants is still high, and polls show Sharansky's party would only win three or four seats were elections held now. Russian-language papers have given him scathing reviews.

"They claim we've done nothing. They criticize us relentlessly," says Mr. Weinberg. On the contrary, he says, the Absorption Ministry is the only ministry whose budget was not cut this year. "We're their only chance of getting a fair piece of the political pie."

Sofia Ron, the political writer for Vesti, the largest Russian-language paper here, describes Sharansky's movement as an ethnic party that doesn't have a stand on the peace process.

Israel's newest voting block is itself diverse. Some Russian immigrants are from the left-wing intelligentsia, while many others are hard-liners who live in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

As a result, Sharansky has tried to reach out to all sides. Aside from paying homage to Rabin, he's made many visits to settlements and often reiterates Netanyahu's catch phrases about the need for "reciprocity," accusing Palestinians of failing to meet their commitments. As such, some Israeli human rights activists who call for Palestinian independence say Sharansky has become too close to the right.

Sharansky says he wants to see Arab-Israeli reconciliation resume. But in his vision of a final peace deal, Palestinians would gain much less than what they're hoping for - all of the Gaza Strip and West Bank territory Israel seized in 1967.

"We said we are going to continue Olso, but certainly not on the basis of giving back 90 percent of the territory," he says. "Both sides have to change their expectations."

Many of Sharansky's voters are also angry about a pending bill that would allow only Orthodox rabbis to conduct conversions to Judaism. Between 120,000 to 140,000 of the Russians who immigrated under Israel's Law of Return are not Jewish, and most of those who wish to convert want to do so through the more liberal streams of Judaism.

Sharansky shrugs off the criticism: "You cannot be in politics and represent everybody."

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