On the cover of the latest issue of Pat Buchanan’s magazine, The American Conservative, the face of Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky peers out from what appears to be a vintage wanted poster.
“Who Is This Man?” the headline screams. “Why Are His Ideas Guiding U.S. Policy?”
The dramatic cover and searing critique inside represented a rare, but increasingly common, dose of bad press for Sharansky.
For months, Sharansky — long a symbol of the prisoner-of-conscience since his days as a refusenik in the Soviet Gulag — has been the talk of Washington, after his new book promoting the spread of democracy was given positive reviews by none other than President Bush. “I felt like his book just confirmed what I believe,” Bush told The New York Times after hosting Sharansky at the White House this past November.
Bush’s endorsement triggered a wave of positive press about Sharansky and his book, “The Case for Democracy.” In recent weeks, however, several commentators of different political stripes have questioned Sharansky’s democratic credentials.
Buchanan and The American Conservative are known for their harsh criticisms of Jerusalem and of pro-Israel activists in Washington. But a similarly scathing piece, titled “Sharansky’s Moral Inconsistency,” recently appeared in The New York Sun, normally a redoubt of journalistic support for the Israeli government.
“Not once in all his years in Israel has [Sharansky] ever stood up for the rights of the Palestinians of the occupied territories,” wrote Sun columnist Hillel Halkin, who tends to lean right on Israeli security issues.
A lengthy letter that appeared in the January 9 edition of The Washington Post hammered home a similar point. The letter was written by M.J. Rosenberg, a former official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Israel Policy Forum’s director of policy analysis. The forum is an advocacy group that has aggressively supported American and Israeli peace moves. “Sharansky advocates for human rights only when his own country, Israel, is not involved,” Rosenberg said.
In an e-mail to the Forward, Sharansky denied that his press reviews have taken a turn for the worse, saying that as a result of several recent developments in the region, “media and public interest in democratization in the Middle East never has been higher or more favorable to me.”
Until eight weeks ago, Sharansky would have had little dissent on this point. On February 2, The New York Times wrote a glowing profile of Sharansky, detailing his rise from freedom fighter in the Gulag to Israel’s minister for Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs, and said that he has “the aura of a Jewish saint.”
The first cracks in this picture were evident in The New York Times on the same day and the same page in which the February 2 profile appeared. Directly below the profile was an article about the land seizures in East Jerusalem. While the profile did not mention the controversy, the article below stated that “the government’s decision on East Jerusalem was initiated by [Sharansky] at a session of his committee on June 22 that was attended by just one other minister.”
The Times and many other media outlets reported that Sharansky had recommended the Israeli government seize Palestinian-owned land in East Jerusalem by using a long-neglected absentee property law. According to most reports, Sharansky’s decision was made behind closed doors, and would have allowed the Israeli government to seize land in East Jerusalem that was owned by Palestinians who live just a few miles away in the West Bank, but are barred under Israeli law from living inside Israel. Israel’s attorney general eventually repudiated Sharansky’s ruling, saying that it betrayed “Israel’s obligations according to the rules of customary international law.”
The proposed policy was the prime target of Halkin’s column in The Sun.
“An Israel that behaves in grossly undemocratic ways is hardly going to inspire the forces of democratic reform in Palestinian life,” Halkin wrote in his February 15 column.
In his e-mail to the Forward, Sharansky defended the decisions he made in regards to the East Jerusalem land: “Contrary to erroneous and politically hostile media reports, I never gave an order nor supported any decision to expropriate Palestinian land. The reported government committee decision was a procedural matter that sought to provide guidelines for the activity of the government custodian when dealing with lands that have no legal owner.”
The American Conservative article, by Texas A&M University political science professor Michael Desch, took aim at Sharansky for behavior far beyond this one decision, criticizing, among other things, Sharansky’s willingness to “advocate for closer relations between the Jewish state and an increasingly autocratic Russia.”
Since entering politics in 1996 as the leader of a new political party aimed at Russian immigrants, Yisrael B’Aliyah, Sharansky has frequently been criticized on the grounds that he was behaving more like an ordinary politician than like a principled human-rights activist. Reform and Conservative synagogue activists who helped fight for his release from the Soviet Union, blasted Sharansky for fighting efforts to expand the rights of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel. Sharansky also drew criticism from some supporters for agreeing to visit China, a communist country that imprisons political and religious dissidents, when he was Israel’s minister of industry and trade.
Since dissolving Yisrael B’Aliyah and joining the Likud Party, Sharansky has become increasingly vocal in his opposition to Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, drawing condemnations from doves who once admired him. He has been credited for Bush’s June 2002 speech linking the creation of a Palestinian state to the emergence of a democratic government in the territories.
Sharansky told the Forward that he was willing to give up some of the luster of his status as a Jewish hero for the opportunities to effect change as a politician.
“Had I sought to remain a symbol loved by one and all, I would not have entered politics, nor — most likely — been jailed,” Sharansky wrote in his e-mail. “I have decided to fight for my principles and beliefs through involvement in political life, which naturally means that not everybody agrees with me all the time.”