The Return of Natan Sharansky

It's hard to think of a foreign leader whose public image is more closely tied to George W. Bush's than Natan Sharansky. A former Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician, his 2004 book, "The Case for Democracy," has been credited with serving as the intellectual underpinning for Bush's discredited "freedom agenda." The 43rd U.S. president once referred to Sharansky in a private letter as his "soul mate," and the 60-year-old Israeli keeps a cartoon on his office wall showing him and Bush exchanging a high-five.

Yet Sharansky is not suffering by association with America's unpopular war president because Israel, which goes to vote in February, looks likely to welcome back a hawk of its own. Polls show Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party surging in popularity and primed to capture as many seats as Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party in the election. That's good news for Sharansky, a Likud ally who could get a key job in any Netanyahu government. "Sharansky has the inside track to become foreign minister," says Gerald Steinberg, a political-studies professor at Israel's Bar Ilan University.

Should he win the post it would represent a remarkable reversal of fortune and stand as a testament to Sharansky's ability to reinvent himself. He quit Israel's cabinet in 2005 to protest then prime minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement from Gaza. During the following years, most of which he spent at a Jerusalem think tank, Sharansky watched in dismay as the Bush administration bungled and abandoned its ambitious attempts to push democratic reform in the region.

Today Sharansky sounds tired of the Knesset shoptalk—ten years "is enough," he says. Still, he's leaving open the door to a cabinet post. He confirms that he has held quiet talks with Netanyahu about playing a role in a future government. "I want to influence what kind of foreign policy [Israel makes]," he says. Ron Dermer, the co-author of "The Case for Democracy," has already signed on as a key Netanyahu aide.

Sharansky hardly fits the image of the cool and dashing diplomat. He's 5 foot 3 and, as a native Russian speaker, his English is often indecipherable (though his Hebrew's not bad). He's prone to fits of excitement—during an interview for this story, he pounded his fist on his desk so hard he nearly smashed the tape recorder. Yet there would be a certain logic to his selection. Sharansky is not well loved at home but overseas, his years as a political prisoner in the Soviet gulag have earned him respect; he won a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1986 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. His high-minded and idealistic public rhetoric could also provide a useful foil for Netanyahu's hard-edged realpolitik at home.

And Sharansky is far more sophisticated than he sometimes seems. "He's a much more complicated and multidimensional person than the image suggests," says Steinberg. Indeed, Sharansky is a clever strategist, a master chess player who once beat Garry Kasparov (albeit in one of several simultaneous matches Kasparov was playing). Consider the way he's taken subtle steps to separate himself from his American "soul mate." In 2005, when Bush was still touting Sharansky's book, the Israeli in a NEWSWEEK interview criticized Bush's relationship with Saudi Arabia's autocratic King Abdullah as a betrayal of democratic principles. He also warned that Washington's push for Palestinian elections "before any democratic institutions are built" would lead to trouble, and to claims that "democracy is dangerous." That is exactly what happened when Hamas won the vote and staged an armed takeover of Gaza.

Sharansky now argues that Palestini-an society needs wholesale economic and political reform before it is ready for more democracy or a peace deal with Israel—a view Netanyahu shares. "You can't focus on building the penthouse before you build the 19 stories underneath," says Dermer. He adds that both Sharansky and Netanyahu favor the creation of economic development projects, such as new industrial zones close to Palestinian population centers, as a way to turn the Palestinians into a potential partner. The difference, says Dermer, "is in their level of optimism. Natan believes it could happen relatively quickly. Netanyahu is more skeptical. For Bibi, it may be a generation." Palestinians and Israeli doves argue such a long view is just a stalling tactic to permit more settlement building.

In the meantime Sharansky, never one to put all his eggs in one basket, has begun to court the United States' new president-elect. The Israeli says he read and enjoyed Barack Obama's first book, "Dreams From My Father," and that he and Obama might actually have more in common ideologically than he did with Bush. Sharansky has long argued that successful democratization has to come from the bottom up and can't be imposed from above. "I think Obama is a bottom-up kind of person," he says. "His whole campaign was about appealing to the grass roots." Sharansky has already reached out to Obama; they met about a year and a half ago in the senator's office, where the Israeli gave Obama his pitch. Sharansky says he tried to meet the other Democratic presidential candidates too, but Obama was the only one who returned his call.