- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, cited as an inspiration by President Bush for promoting democracy, resigned yesterday to protest the planned withdrawal from Gaza, which he called a “tragic mistake” that will encourage Palestinian violence and deepen the rift in Israeli society.

Mr. Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who was minister for Diaspora Affairs and Jerusalem, served in government cabinets during the past nine years and repeatedly criticized Israeli prime ministers for what he said was their mishandling of negotiations with the Palestinians.

In his letter of resignation to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Mr. Sharansky wrote that he opposes making unilateral concessions to the Palestinians.

“As you know, I was opposed to the disengagement plan from the outset, on the basis of my deep belief that every concession in the peace process made by the Israeli side must be accompanied by democratic reform on the Palestinian side,” Mr. Sharansky wrote.

He told Israel Army Radio that he considers the disengagement plan “a tragic mistake that exacts a high price and also encourages terror.”

Mr. Sharansky immigrated to Israel in 1986, after serving a decade in Soviet prisons. While celebrated abroad, he remained a relatively marginal figure in Israel. He never attracted a large political following and continues to speak in strongly accented Hebrew.

By contrast, he won praise from Mr. Bush for his recent book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” A hero to world Jewry for his dissident activities in the 1970s, he was included on Time magazine’s recent list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Mr. Bush, who invited Mr. Sharansky to the White House in November, has said Mr. Sharansky’s book summarizes his feelings about the need to spread democracy around the world.

In an interview with Army Radio, Mr. Sharansky said he would remain active in Mr. Sharon’s ruling Likud Party, which has been torn by the Gaza withdrawal, with many legislators and leading activists opposed to the plan.

“We now have a very strong position within Likud,” Mr. Sharansky said, referring to the party rebels.

Mr. Sharansky did not attend yesterday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. Mr. Sharon told ministers at the start of the meeting that he regretted Mr. Sharansky’s decision.

“I want to express my appreciation to Natan, not for his letter, because I would be very happy if he were to continue in his post,” Mr. Sharon said.

Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon said the resignation would take effect tomorrow.

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