One Lieberman Is Enough

The chairman of Yisrael b'Aliyah built his public career on the basis of his glorious past as a fighter for human rights and as one who paid a high price for his determined struggle against an undemocratic regime.

Housing Minister Natan Sharansky, the chairman of Yisrael b'Aliyah, started the 2003 election campaign as the sole representative of the immigrants in Israel; he is reaching the finish line after having positioned himself as an alternative to the nationalist leadership of the right, with the slogan "the clean, sane right." In the transition from an immigration lobbyist to the aspiration for national leadership, bad things have happened to Sharansky.

The most recent was his crude attack on the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Justice Mishael Cheshin. "His hyperactivity," as Sharansky defined the judge's decisions, led the politician to complain to Cheshin's "boss," the president of the Supreme Court. In the letter he sent to Justice Aharon Barak, Sharansky also claimed that "Cheshin serves as a tool at the hands of manipulative elements." This irresponsible attack was answered by a sharp letter from Cheshin himself, who took pains to remind Sharansky that this is not the way things are done in a "Western democracy," as well as by a cold comment from Barak.

Before his well-publicized attack on the Supreme Court justice, Sharansky came out publicly against the High Court of Justice ruling that allowed Arab Knesset Members Azmi Bishara (Balad) and Ahmed Tibi (Ta'al) to take part in the elections. He claimed that "the Supreme Court judges should have displayed more sensitivity at a time of war."

In both cases, Sharansky justified his position by his deep desire to preserve Israeli democracy. But although he sings the praises of democracy, his actions show a cynical attempt to appeal to those right-wing circles that dispute the validity of Israel's democratic institutions. Sharansky is not the first politician to do this, but he is the last person from whom such conduct might have been expected.

The chairman of Yisrael b'Aliyah built his public career on the basis of his glorious past as a fighter for human rights and as one who paid a high price for his determined struggle against an undemocratic regime. In a place where others built a career from the scars they earned in wars, there is nothing wrong with extracting political capital from the scars of a different battle. The nine years he spent in a Soviet prison not only made Sharansky a part of the Israeli ethos, but also established his world status as a symbol of the human spirit in its struggle for democracy.

Now Sharansky is deriving his political philosophy from what he learned during those dark days. He explains the vagueness of his positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the need to first get democracy in the Arab countries and the Palestinian Authority before making any move to reach a peace agreement with them. His program details very precisely the process of democratization that is demanded of the Palestinians, without resolving the contradiction between this process and the deepening of the Israeli control involved in getting it.

At all his election events during the past weeks, Sharansky has taken care to remind the audience how much the current American administration supports the connection between the enemy's democratization and making peace with it. In a Hebrew campaign flyer directed at voters on the right, he notes that the American administration has adopted his democratization plan, and at the same time promises his voters that "Yisrael b'Aliyah will continue to maintain the rule of law."

It can be said that Sharansky first used democracy for his own gain, in the positive sense.

Now, however, he has turned it into a blunt instrument with which he is striking at Israeli democracy. He is not the only one, but he is the one who should be held accountable on this issue. The idea of demanding more from Sharansky because of his status is not a cliche, it is rather a legitimate expectation of a politician who claims moral authority.

Sharansky enjoys a special public status. Among all the ranks of the Russian-speaking community, he still enjoys great personal popularity, far greater than the popularity of his party. Recently, he has turned to a new group of voters, the English-speaking community in Israel. The respect with which he was received at a campaign gathering in Jerusalem about a month ago was unlike any other campaign event. Many in the audience remembered not only the glorious days of his earlier years, but also remembered the glorious days of their own youth when they conducted campaigns to free him from prison. All in the name of democracy.

But all this, as well as his huge influence on the Russian-language media in Israel, give Sharansky not only credit, but also special responsibility. Not only as one who wants to preserve his status as a symbol, but also as one who has a profound influence on the shaping of public opinion. Sharansky is a senior partner in establishing the norms of a large public, which is forging its positions vis-a-vis the democratic institutions of their new homeland. This is the contract he has made with his public, and therefore he cannot afford to engage in populist electioneering. There is already one (National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu) Avigdor Lieberman in this arena.