Natan Sharansky stands barely five-foot-three. He never wears a tie, and his headware of choice is a green Israeli Army forage cap. It reminds him of the old days, when he was a refusenik in the Soviet Union fighting a constant guerrilla war against KGB apparatchiks wanting to intimidate Jews.
Now Israel's Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr. Sharansky is a large reminder to ordinary Israelis of two important facets of life in the Middle East. First, undemocratic regimes like the Soviet Union are not to be trusted. Second, the 700,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union who have emigrated to Israel as a result of Soviet oppression now comprise a major political force. As Palestinian and Israeli envoys head into another round of peace talks, begun last week with moderation from U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, what Mr. Sharanksy represents is central.
"It is hard to make the transition from being just a dissident to being a member of the government," he confessed with a trademark impish grin in a conversation in Jerusalem last month. "I often feel I am still a dissident, but of course, I am now the government."
Rather than joining the political ranks of either of the two major parties-Likud, the ruling party in Israel's Knesset today, or Labor, the party that had governed Israel throughout most of the country's five-decade history-he founded an entirely new party, Israel B'Aliyah. The name literally means "Israel In Immigration." An extension of his role as dissident, Mr. Sharansky intended it to give voice to the often frustrated feelings of his Soviet Jewish compatriots now in Israel. When his party won seven seats in the May 1996 national elections, Mr. Sharansky found himself a cabinet minister in the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu-part of the establishment.
His remark is more than a little disingenuous. Mr. Sharansky continues to fill the role of outsider, from the inside. One example is in Israel's relationship with China. Israel has aggressively pursued good relations with China ever since the Beijing regime decided a few years ago that it would break ranks with the Arab diplomatic boycott of Jerusalem. A major factor in those relations has been trade. Israel's advanced, relatively low-priced high-tech industries intrigue Chinese buyers. But when Mr. Sharansky a few months ago asked if he could raise Chinese human-rights issues with a visiting Chinese minister, the Israeli Foreign Ministry made it clear they wanted nothing to get in the way of trade-as-usual. Mr. Sharansky brought up human rights anyway.
Translating human-rights concepts into Israel's dealings with its neighbors is more tricky, Mr. Sharansky says. He urged Mr. Netanyahu to make any further Israeli-Arab diplomatic agreements conditional on movements toward democracy within the Arab world. "Some Israelis say that it is easier to make peace with someone who is fully in charge of a country," he says. "But how can you be sure that things will be the same in the future? I grew up in a Stalinist regime, so I know what it is like."
Mr. Sharansky argues that the only reliable diplomatic partners around the world are those who practice democracy. It's a guiding principle forged in hard personal experience. Mr. Sharansky spent nine years in prison in the Soviet Union for his aggressive role in pushing for the Jewish right to emigrate and for holding together a network of dissidents who assisted in the fall of communism.
His release in February 1986 was the culmination of years of international protest and petition. Even Mr. Sharanksy's wife, Avital, was arrested in Geneva in November 1985 while attempting to hand a protest letter to Raisa Gorbachev. When he arrived in Israel he was treated almost as a secular saint for his championship of the Jewish cause. It was then that he changed his given name from the thoroughly Russian "Anatoly" to the thoroughly Jewish and Israeli "Natan."
Mr. Sharansky could have rested comfortably on the proceeds of his book, Fear No Evil, which described his ordeal, and lectures to various Jewish groups in the United States and elsewhere. With a vigorous, outgoing personality-not to mention a brilliant chess game (he once defeated world grandmaster Gary Kasparov in a simultaneous match with several other players)-Mr. Sharansky would have been quickly bored with the life of a former famous person. He plunged into politics.
Outspoken support for democracy can lead to criticism of U.S. policy as well. He says the U.S. policy of detente, pursued in the early 1970s by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, shied away from any public protests against Soviet behavior. "American officials would tell us that quiet diplomacy was better for us, but I never felt so. They thought the Soviet regime would go on forever and that what we must all do was to find a way to live with it. But I felt we would never be safe with a regime that tomorrow might adopt a policy different from today's, with no safeguards."
One recent foreign visitor to Israel who agrees fully with this argument is Hong Kong's pre-eminent democratic opposition activist and human-rights lawyer, Martin Lee. On a private visit to Israel last month, Mr. Lee met with Mr. Sharansky to explain how Hong Kong's new Chinese-appointed governor, Tung Chee-hwa, rolled back provisions for democratic elections established in 1995 under British rule. A surprised and concerned Mr. Sharansky said he would like to visit Hong Kong to learn for himself how democratic principles have been set back by the incoming communist-backed authorities.
Unnoticed by major media, the Sharansky-Lee conversation may turn out to be historical. Consider Mr. Sharansky, a Russian emigré speaking up for freedom and human rights in the Middle East, comparing ideals with Mr. Lee, a British-trained Chinese lawyer described as "the leader of the opposition party in China." Could Mr. Sharansky be a future prime minister of Israel and Mr. Lee a future president of China? This century has produced stranger turnarounds.