NEW YORK — The Israeli prime minister, former US president George W. Bush, and scores of Jewish leaders gathered in New York on Wednesday night to celebrate the life of Natan Sharansky, the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency and famed Soviet dissident and human rights activist.
“Nine years in prison, nine years in politics, and nine years at the Jewish Agency,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech at historic Cipriano 25 Broadway in downtown Manhattan, according to sources who attended. “We gather here to say two words: Thank you — for your service to the Jewish people, [for] democracy, for the Jewish State.”
The event — which was also designed to launch a new Jewish Agency initiative to provide its emissaries, also known as schlichim, with training, tools and technology before they serve — was originally supposed to be open to the press, but Bush requested it be off-the-record and media were ultimately not allowed in.
Wanting to respect Bush’s request and not to divulge his remarks, Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the ex-US head of state “reflected on many of the experiences they shared and he spoke of the work they’ve done together for democracy and freedom.” He added, “They have a close personal relationship.”
In remarks later released by the Government Press Office, Netanyahu said, of both the former Soviet Union and today’s Iran, “If you press them, they will crack.”
“I believed that strong and sustained leadership in the West could win the Cold War few thought could be won. And in fact, that’s what we proceeded to do,” recalled the prime minister.
“That same faith should guide us today, because there’s another would-be empire in the Middle East,” he went on. “It too oppresses its people. It too terrorizes its neighbors. But it too has a hollow core. If you press them, they will crack. They will succumb to strong pressure from the free world. And that country is Iran, and Iran’s aggression must be stopped and can be stopped. If you want to honor Natan’s legacy, then support the brave men and women of Iran who are fighting for freedom … and praying for our support for their struggle. That’s the best way to honor Natan’s legacy.”
Sharansky is scheduled to step down as head of the Jewish Agency in three months. His replacement has not yet been named.
Also in the audience Wednesday were Las Vegas casino magnate and GOP mega donor Sheldon Adelson, along with his Israeli wife Miriam, according to pictures circulating on social media. Netanyahu, in his speech, thanked him for his donations to Israeli causes. Adelson is currently at the center of one of the investigations plaguing Netanyahu back home.
Several weeks ago, police recommended the Israeli leader be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in two separate cases. The prime minister is also linked to an additional two investigations.
In so-called Case 2000, Netanyahu is suspected of cutting a deal to weaken the Adelson-backed pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom in exchange for positive coverage in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Aharanot.
Adelson has testified twice as part of the ongoing corruption probes against the prime minister, who was in the United States this week to speak before the AIPAC Policy Conference and meet with US President Donald Trump. On Wednesday, Netanyahu will visit a Jerusalem exhibit at the United Nations and meet with the US envoy to the world body, Nikki Haley.
But Wernick said that the politics of the moment were mostly kept aside throughout the evening — and that the event was focused predominantly on Sharansky’s life and work. (Although Netanyahu did devote a chunk of his speech to Iran and his discontent with the 2015 nuclear deal.)
“It was about politics only insofar as Natan is someone who cares deeply about human rights and freedom,” he said. “And that story was told very well tonight, much to his own embarrassment. But the evening was about Natan.”