Is third party in the offing Sharansky forges olim into political force

JERUSALEM — Natan Sharansky wanders into the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel speaking Russian into a cellular phone.

Short, stocky and unassuming, he is dressed casually, wearing the military cap that has become his trademark.

A man crosses his path and stops in his tracks as he recognizes the famous former Soviet Jewish activist-Prisoner of Zion and extends his hand.

"I, too, am an oleh, a veteran oleh," he declares in Hebrew, referring to himself as an immigrant.

"Then join our movement," says Sharansky.

Last week, at a highly publicized, well-organized conference in Tel Aviv, Sharansky launched Yisrael ba-Aliyah — a new ideological and political movement.

Speaking before about 200 olim activists and reporters from the Israeli and foreign media, Sharansky announced in Hebrew, then in Russian, the movement's goals: to change Israel's aliyah (immigration) priorities –with the immediate aim of bringing an additional 1 million olim from the former Soviet Union — and to make better use of the olim already here.

The name of the movement, Yisrael ba-Aliyah, has two meanings in Hebrew:"Israel for immigration" and "Israel moving upward."

The new movement should appeal to emigres like Malyi Peter, 42, who was shopping one day last week in Bat Yam's Lily's Delicatessen. There, the signs are in Russian, the language of commerce is Russian, and the customers are drawn from more than 20,000 Russian immigrants living in this city south of Tel Aviv.

"`Stinking Russians' — that's what the Israelis think of us. My son hears it in school. We have cars and apartments but they won't let us have careers. Everywhere we are last in line," Peter said.

A watch repairman in Bat Yam and one-time mechanical engineer in Odessa until he left in 1991, Peter said he voted Labor in the 1992 elections. So did most Russian immigrants. "Labor promised a lot and we saw the Likud hadn't done anything for us," he said.

The movement's mission statement said: "Until now, the interests of new immigrants have served as bargaining chips for the large Israeli parties. We are determined to take our fate into our own hands."

But it also stressed: "We will do all in our power to use the huge potential of the immigrants not merely for the benefit of the immigrants themselves but ofIsrael as a whole. Our primary objective is integration, not segregation."

After Sharansky's address, a string of speakers explained their reasons forsupporting the new movement.

Alexander Rubny, a young Russian man from the coastal town of Or Akiva who wore a T-shirt with "San Francisco" printed on it, spoke of the important role of young people in the movement.

Addis Bada, the first Ethiopian immigrant officer in the Israeli army, said: "Ethiopians ask me, `How can you join up with the Russians? They're racists.' I tell them, `It doesn't matter whether they're Russians or Ethiopians, they sweep the streets just like we do; they live in mobile homes just like we do. If we don't close ranks and solve our own problems, no one's going to do it for us.'"

Zvi Weinberg, a veteran oleh from Canada and former activist with the Free Russian Jewry campaign, bemoaned the terrible waste of the great potential of the olim.

Michael Nudelman, a councilman from Kiryat Shmona, the San Francisco federation's partner border town, spoke of the unpleasant stereotypes many Israelis have of olim. He also spoke of the immigrants' eagerness to contribute.

He and many others in the movement stuck to the themes of aliyah and absorption, staying clear of such standard issues as the peace process or the relationship between synagogue and state.

The main immediate goals of the movement, which is likely to turn into a political party for next year's elections, were listed in a kit each participant has received: a nationwide membership drive, election of a steering committee to prepare a national convention, and the naming of Sharansky as the organization's leader.

This is not Sharansky's first foray into politics. He backed away from a political party for olim just before the 1992 elections. The party, DA ("Yes"in Russian), ran anyway but fell far short of expectations by getting less than 12,000 votes, about half the amount needed to enter the Knesset.

Some 750,000 people from the former Soviet Union currently live in Israel, arriving mainly during two immigration waves, during the 1970s and since1990.

Of those olim, an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 are eligible to vote in Israel's 1996 national elections.

Opinion polls indicate that at least 45 percent would vote for a party representing olim. That could translate into the election of six to eight Knesset members for Sharansky's new party, which aims for the center of Israel's political map.

If Labor and Likud fail to win a parliamentary majority, Sharansky's party could wield the power to determine which major party will govern the country.

Sharansky, so far, has steered clear of the issues other parties tackle. Yisrael ba-Aliya is unlikely to take a tough line on the peace process, and has no plans to endorse either Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin or Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's first direct elections for prime minister in 1996.

"We're in favor of continuing the search for peace while ensuring security,"said Sharansky, who with his wife, Avital, has two sabra daughters, and does not look 47 years old.

He explains that in Soviet prisons there was a belief one is not completely free until he or she has spent as much time outside as in.

Sharansky was released nine years ago, after having spent an equal time in prison. He says he feels 38, pretending his prison years don't count.

He also jokes that "those nine years in prison helped me a lot in my nine years in Israel."

Sharansky exudes irresistible charm, has an engaging sense of humor and a pokerface. The light blue eyes that give him an aura of innocence turn steely when he thinks he is being misunderstood, or worse, misinterpreted.

He prefers to speak to a reporter in English so his quotes do not need translating.

A leading journalist recently described him as soft on the outside and hard as a diamond on the inside.

Although Sharansky thinks Israel is paradise and "the best place for Jews," he said that "even in paradise you must take moral responsibility for some not good things which are happening, and try to improve this paradise."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain, Sharansky sees a historically unique opportunity to strengthen the Jewish people.

"While we're dealing a lot with the building of the state of Israel, we're practically not dealing with the building of the people of Israel," he says, noting that the founding fathers of Zionism dealt with both issues.

Sharansky says he wants to reshape Zionism and transform Israel from serving as a safe haven for refugees into an attractive place for prospective olim — not only those from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union but also from the United States.

"We must have an active strategy — find out what must be changed in order to become attractive to the Jews of the world," he says.

"I believe that the more Jews will come, the quicker these changes will take place. We'll bring another million Jews from Russia, and the country will change so much that another million American Jews will come."

When he was still living in Russia, Sharansky says, he put Israelis on a pedestal, thinking of them almost as demigods. He laughs heartily at the suggestion that he may now see them as less than human, and is quick to deny it.

Yet he faults Israelis for their paternalistic attitude toward diaspora Jews and olim, and for losing their "Yiddisher kop" — their Jewishsmarts.

Sharansky is clearly angered by the paternalism, which may explain his refusal to join any of the major political parties despite having been courted by all of them.

He believes they all neglect the immigrant perspective.

"Without the hope for peace, you cannot convince people to come here. On theother hand, without national and personal security, there can definitely not be `kibbutz galuyot' — the ingathering of the Jews."

Sharansky suggests that those who believe in the concept of a Greater Israel vote for extreme right-wing parties, and those who think that the Palestinians should have their own state vote for the dovish Meretz bloc of Labor. "But if you believe that it's very important to have a party which will strengthen the idea of building the people of Israel, I think you should join us," he says.

Sharansky laughs when asked whether he will run for prime minister.

"My ambition is much bigger than to run for one or another office, including the office of prime minister," he says. "My ambition is to bring millions of Jews to Israel."