From gulag to government - Sharansky returns

Pleading with Natan Sharansky for political support, the settler woman in Hebron appealed to his dissident past. "You're a tough and shrewd guy. You survived the Gulag by never letting the government trick you. Do the right thing."

But it is 10 years since Anatoly Shcharansky, as the name of the Soviet Union's most famous Jewish prisoner was then spelled, was freed from prison and flown to Israel. These days he is Trade and Industry Minister. "Yes," he told the settler, "but you know today I am the government."

Tomorrow, Mr Sharansky makes his first trip back to the former Soviet Union since he was released. He will head a 90-member delegation of officials and businessmen. He comes, not just as a visiting minister, but as the effective leader of the 600,000 Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel after 1989.

There was nothing gradual about the return of 49-year-old Mr Sharansky to prominence, because he never quite sunk from sight. He set up a cultural foundation. He wrote a column for the fortnightly Jerusalem Report. But a year ago he was a dated figure trying, like many Israeli celebrities, to create his own political party.

He had an unwitting ally in the Israeli government, which wholly underestimated the resentment of Russian immigrants at their treatment. At a meeting to found his Israel Ba-liya (Israel with Immigration) party, he said: "Russian immigrants want to become Israelis without leaving their culture at the airport." No fewer than 61,000 immigrants hold degrees in engineering, and many cannot find jobs of equivalent standing to their employment in the old Soviet Union.

In the election last May, the party won seven seats in the 120-member Knesset. It was the defection of the Russians which tipped the balance against the Labour party and made Benjamin Netanyahu, an old friend of Mr Sharansky's, Prime Minister. In the new government Mr Sharansky was given the trade and industry post. It was not something he'd claim to know much about, he cheerfully admits, and Tel Aviv industrialists endorse his admission of ignorance.

In his first seven months in office he has made limited impact - at times he looks a little lost, if not aghast, at the vicious infighting in the new government, and despite their old friendship he is no longer considered close to Mr Netanyahu.

Increased trade is not the only priority of his trip to Russia. During the election campaign he said: "A million Russian Jews do not come to Israel because of the problems we get here." After his victory he said that the immigrants would no longer be on the political margins, but there is little sign so far of an increase in the exodus of Russian Jews.

His own Zionism remains conventional - anti-Semitism turned on its head. As a computer specialist in Moscow, Mr Sharansky applied to emigrate to Israel in 1973 and went to jail for nine years in 1977. His most effective action was founding the Helsinki Monitoring Group, a human rights organisation. In Israel, however, he has kept his distance from groups agitating for Palestinians.

But his political future looks assured. The proportion of Russian immigrants in the electorate can only go up and any future government must angle for his support. From being a permanent dissident, almost permanently in jail, he could become a permanent minister, never out of office.

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