Sharansky charms politicians and Jewish leaders in New York

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NEW YORK — Natan Sharansky, the new trade and industry minister, was largely missing in New York last week, but Sharansky, the dissident, and Sharansky, the founder of a successful Israeli political movement, seemed ubiquitous.

In encounters with businessmen, the press and Jewish leaders, Sharansky repeated that immigrants want to be integrated immediately into Israeli society and that what is good for immigrants is good for Israel.

He did not dwell on the peace process or on major economic initiatives — although he used virtually every New York appearance to briefly note that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to economic reform.

Instead, Sharansky adroitly connected his new position with his past.

"Some think it is not logical after all the years as a dissident to be the minister of trade," Sharansky told a New York audience Thursday of last week, on the last leg of his first trip to the United States since the election.

But, he said, he is an expert in foreign trade, with 20 years of experience dating from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. That American legislation linked U.S. trade with the former Soviet Union to human rights.

When asked if he planned to go to Moscow, Sharansky said: "Now I have a serious reason [to go], and I believe we can do a lot to open opportunities."

Sharansky also spoke with New York business leaders at a breakfast at the mansion of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had lunch with business writers, and met with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The visit was a sort of homecoming of the hero to the city that sees itself as the center for the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Giuliani hailed Sharansky as the symbol of the fight for freedom and democracy, then noted a poignant reunion was taking place in City Hall between two men who "a little over 10 years ago met on a bridge."

In 1986, Howard Safir was a U.S. marshal standing in the snow on a Berlin bridge, where he was the first westerner to greet Sharansky during the spy swap that freed the jailed dissident. Now the New York City police commissioner, Safir recalled Sharansky's first words: "He wanted to know exactly where the border was."

Safir was "the first person I met in freedom who would make sure I entered freedom safely," Sharansky said, beaming at a City Hall news conference.

"You meet very few heroes in your lifetime, and here was a real hero," a grinning Safir said. "Who would have thought he'd be a minister and I'd be police commissioner?"

One day after he signed the Israel-Canada free-trade agreement in Toronto, Sharansky told the business writers that the United States will be the fourth partner in a renewed effort to prepare for the first industrial park in Gaza. It had been announced previously that the World Bank would participate.