Maybe its Sharanskys time

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The Zionist dream of a homeland for the Jews is a reality for nearly half a century — but Israel still faces violent enemies and still pushes ahead through the sound of Jewish argument about the country's direction.

From its near still birth, the Jewish state has evolved into a western democracy with a growing economy increasingly based not on military need but high-tech ingenuity.

For this entire century, the Holy Land has drawn millions of Jews from virtually every place, as the ingathering of exiles fulfilled a biblical priority.

But once they got there, immigrants never found it easy. Israeli veterans often expected the greenhorns to experience the same hardships the early socialist pioneers endured.

Now comes one of the most inspiring olim of all, former gulag exile Natan Sharansky, to address a long-ignored problem: the quality of life for all of Israel's people but especially for its newcomers.

Sharansky has formed a political party to deal with the difficulties immigrants face while being absorbed into Israeli life — and to bring in another 1 million Jews. Some predict that with hundreds of thousands of former Russians eligible to vote in next year's elections, he will win six to eight Knesset seats and become a pivotal political player, if he so chooses.

Sharansky's arrival into Israel's rough political fray comes not a moment too soon. The state virtually has added the Russian alphabet to its three official languages (Hebrew, English and Arabic) while tensions have flared between Russians and Ethiopians fighting for a place in the Israeli sun.

Back in the '50s, Israel got away with putting Yemenite and Sephardi immigrants in remote development towns. In the '70s, the post-Six Day War years drew in more and more U.S. and Western Jews. Many relied on Jewish Agency aid and special immigrant tax breaks to adjust to what for them was a lower standard of living.

Increasingly, those Western Jews were motivated by biblical visions of a Greater Israel, and homes on the West Bank answered their needs.

But the next wave of immigrants are arriving at a time when Israel can finally afford to look inward.

And only a heroic figure such as Sharansky could lead the new Israelis, for whom the Jewish state represents their last, best hope. He has the credibility of having suffered heavily under the Soviet regime, then having emerged as a Soviet Jewry leader and finally an astute political commentator with that most vital characteristic — a sense of humor.

If anybody can help Israel, it is Sharansky.