Down and out a week ago, Sharansky back on top

TEL AVIV — On a brisk February night in 1986, a short, pale and balding man, who gained international acclaim as the leader of the Jewish refusenik movement in the Soviet Union, stepped off a plane at Ben-Gurion Airport and into Israeli legend.

Ten years later, when he decided to leverage his reputation for courage and integrity as a political candidate, Natan Sharansky shocked Israel's political establishment when his new immigrant-rights party, Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, won seven seats in its first election.

Since then the party's fortunes have steadily declined, and on Jan. 28, the myth of Natan Sharansky seemed shattered: Yisrael Ba'Aliyah won just two seats in Israel's latest elections, and Sharansky resigned from the Knesset.

Israeli politicians never die, however, they just reincarnate.

Following a short post-election vacation — and 17 years to the day after he stepped onto the Ben-Gurion Airport tarmac — Sharansky struck a deal with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to merge Yisrael Ba'Aliyah into the Likud, the Knesset's most powerful party.

A cartoon Sunday in the mass circulation daily Yediot Achronot showed a gnome-like Sharansky scurrying up a ladder leaning against a giant Sharon. Playing on the name of Yisrael Ba'Aliyah — which can mean "Israel on the rise" — the cartoon said that Sharansky really was the one rising.

Under the terms of his agreement with Sharon, Sharansky will become a minister without portfolio, responsible for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs. He also is expected to have a seat in the small inner Cabinet that authorizes Israeli military operations.

In exchange, the addition of Yisrael Ba'Aliyah's two seats increases the Likud's representation to 40 in the 120-seat Knesset.

Aides and pundits called Sharansky's decision to resign his Knesset seat a magnanimous decision. And joining Sharon, at a time when Yisrael Ba'Aliyah has the support of only about 2 percent of the Israeli electorate, was a wise one, the pundits said.

Despite what may seem a demotion from his post in the last government, when he oversaw an annual budget of hundreds of millions of shekels in the Housing and Construction Ministry, many say Sharansky is perfect for the diaspora affairs post.

For example, Sharansky managed to push through amendments to new tax laws that would have taxed immigrants' pensions and other overseas funds. Many had warned that the new taxes would discourage immigration to Israel from prosperous Western countries.

Sharansky says his party's apparent failure in the last elections actually is a sign of success.

"I've been saying ever since the birth of the party that it is a tool for reaching a specific social aim: integration," Sharansky said.

Its success in that field carried a price tag — the party's obsolescence.

"Already in 1996 I said that our aim is to get into the process of integration to empower" immigrants "to open doors, so they can enter the rooms where the decisions are made," he said in a telephone interview. "It was a unique experiment."

Sharansky says his party helped propel local politicians to the deputy mayor positions in 20 municipalities. That has created a base for Russian representation in the crucial lower rungs of Israeli politics, he said.

Almost 800,000 recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union were registered for the Jan. 28 elections. That only 8 percent of them voted for a party that aims to represent their interests shows how quick their integration into Israeli society has been, Sharansky said.

Indeed, almost 15 years after the massive wave of immigration began as the Soviet Union crumbled, Russians rank among Israel's top businessmen, scientists and even young army officers.

Inertia prevented Yisrael Ba'Aliyah from changing to reflect that reality, so the party essentially disintegrated, Sharansky said.

As for his political future, Sharansky is not pessimistic. He has a strong ally in Sharon, who was among those Sharansky embraced at Ben-Gurion upon his arrival in 1986 and was the first person to call him after he announced his resignation.