Zionist Dream Dies Hard In Sharansky

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - As Israel and the Palestinian Authority wait to see if President Clinton will invite them to a Washington summit expected to cement an agreement between them, the opposition of Israel's most famous former Soviet dissident is threatening to throw a wrench into the summit works.

Natan Sharansky, now Israel's Interior Minister, is standing firm on his pledge to quit the coalition if Prime Minister Ehud Barak does not have a broad government consensus and fixed "red lines" before attending a three-way meeting in Washington.

But it is not just the departure of Sharansky's four-man immigrants' faction, Yisrael B'Aliyah (Israel on the Rise), that could spell trouble for Barak. It is the respect commanded around the world by the former "prisoner of Zion" that could put a stop to the Clinton-mediated summit.

When Sharansky was released from a notorious Soviet prison in 1986 as part of an East-West spy swap, he was taken to Berlin's Glienicki bridge for the handover.

But after spending nine years in prisons and work camps - including in Siberia - he refused to cross the bridge without a book of Psalms, which his wife, Avital, had sent him. He lay down in the snow until it was returned by his erstwhile captors.

That same tenacity may prevent a Washington summit from taking place, according to a political analyst for the Israeli Russian newspaper Vesti, Dov Kontorer.

As a former refusenik, or Soviet Jew refused permission to immigrate to Israel, Sharansky has a large following in the American Jewish community, Kontorer said. As such, when he took a stand against the current negotiations, U.S. Jewry, which fought long and hard for his release, paid attention.

If American Jews protest the current negotiations, Clinton will be forced to listen - not because of Israel, but because he is concerned about the Jewish vote in Al Gore's presidential race, and in the First Lady's bid to represent New York State in the Senate.

Several weeks ago, Sharansky wrote a letter to Barak detailing what he called unreciprocated concessions the prime minister was willing to make to the PA.

He highlighted the fact that these deals were not only being kept secret from the public but from cabinet ministers.

The letter was picked up by the World Zionist Organization and used in a huge public campaign in the form of full-page ads in prominent newspapers in Israel and throughout the U.S.

Knesset Member Roman Bronfman, who heads the two-man Mahar (Tomorrow) faction, was elected to the parliament as part of Sharansky's party but split from him over the issue of the diplomatic process, which Bronfman wholeheartedly supports.

"Natan represents the ideologue of the whole land of Israel," Bronfman said, referring to the age-old Jewish dream of returning to the entire land of Israel including Judea and Samaria, known also as the disputed West Bank.

All of that camp found it hard to separate themselves from "the dream," he added.

Sharansky was involved in talks at a previous U.S.-mediated summit while serving in former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's cabinet. But, Bronfman said, Sharansky then was fully involved in, and fully informed about, the process.

Under Barak, however, far more concessions were being offered, and Sharansky had not been a part of the decision-making.

After a meeting last week between Barak and his cabinet ministers, and attended by U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, Sharansky said that based on what he had heard, "if a decision is made to hold a summit, and the prime minister goes, I will leave the government."

Sharansky is pushing for a broad consensus among the ministers and voters. He wants established acceptable guidelines for the negotiations before Barak goes to Washington. He would also like to see Barak invite the main opposition Likud party to join a national unity government at this crucial time in the peace process.

First-hand experience of totalitarianism

Sharansky has had years of experience standing on his own and resisting the flow.

The 52-year-old minister, who was born in the Ukraine, applied to immigrate to Israel in 1974 - a dangerous move at the time. He was arrested three years later on charges of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1978, he was convicted on the espionage charges and convicted to 13 years in prison and labor camps. After an international campaign for his release, he was freed and went to Israel nine years later. His wife had been waiting for him in Israel for 12 years, since the day after they were married.

"His experience with totalitarian regimes and dictators gives him the right to speak about these kinds of things," Sharansky's press advisor Roman Polonsky said of the negotiations with the PA.

"We saw it when [he spoke] against this kind of agreement with Syria that he was right," Polonsky said. While in favor of peace with Syria, Sharansky believes Israel needs to be extremely careful when considering ceding the strategic Golan Heights to an unstable regime.

With the PA, Polonsky said, "the main idea about the peace process is reciprocity." Right now, amid Palestinian threats of violence if they do not achieve their expectations from the talks, he does not believe "as a former prisoner of this kind of regime" that the way to negotiate is to concede.

Could Sharansky have personal political motives - future premiership ambitions perhaps - for taking this stand?

Both Bronfman and Kontorer insist that he has taken a stand purely out of a concern for the country.

An American immigrant to Israel, who preferred to remain anonymous, knows the Sharanskys from the days when she was heavily involved in the campaign to secure his release in the 1980's.

She said she always wondered if this "little guy with the big, heavy Russian accent" would ever rise to leadership in the nation. But she agreed that he is not being motivated by personal ambition.

"I think Sharansky has a heart for the country and the people," she said. He is concerned about the "survival" of the nation, and remembers what he suffered for.