THE arrival of Anatoly Shcharansky in Israel produced a wave of ecumenical celebration rarely seen here these days. At a time of acute tension between religious and secular communities, between Labor and the Likud, and among Sephardic and Ashkenazi constituencies, all were able to find joyous expression for their noblest sentiments in the person and character of this former ``prisoner of Zion.'' Through his own moral insight, Shcharansky had achieved freedom in a society of the enslaved. By rejecting moral compromise he had maintained that freedom through nine years of physical custody, leaving his KGB accusers imprisoned in their own Orwellian world.
Yet the very triumph of Shcharansky makes it easy to draw the wrong practical conclusions from his case.
Shcharansky's release does not prove that Western pressure can achieve freedom for refuseniks or dissidents the Soviets choose to prosecute, or that it can win the right to emigrate for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who would leave the Soviet Union were that option genuinely made available to them.
Absent a climate of d'etente, such pressure has had no discernible effect. Emigration statistics reveal that between 1968 and the end of 1985, some 266,500 Jews were permitted to leave the Soviet Union. But of these, some 88,000 were let out during the 1972 thaw which followed the signing of SALT I. Another 100,000 left during the 1978-80 period when d'etente again flickered briefly, SALT II having been signed in 1979. During most other years, results were meager.
As regards domestic liberalization, neither d'etente nor periods of high East-West tension appear to have much influence on Soviet conduct. The latter responds not to external forces but to the policies and attitudes of the man at the top of the Kremlin hierarchy.
Shcharansky would, of course, still be inside the Soviet Union today were it not for the extraordinary efforts waged by his wife, Avital, to keep his name on the lips of Western human rights activists and in the political consciousness of Western leaders. But his is the exception that proves the rule.
His freedom came precisely because of efforts to revive a semblance of big-power d'etente. And it came when dozens of other, less illustrious refuseniks and dissidents are faring worse than ever inside the Soviet Union, when emigration itself is practically nil, and long after Shcharansky's persecution on trumped-up spy charges had been exploited internally by the Soviets to intimidate other persons.
The above is no argument for d'etente, which must stand or fall on the basis of national interests even more compelling than Jewish emigration.
But it does suggest that the massive international campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry has done very little to help Soviet Jewry. To the extent it has contributed to the breakdown of d'etente, it has made the Soviets less likely to permit Jewish emigration to Israel or the US.
The campaign has served other purposes which many may regard as more important than the one proclaimed. In particular, it has:
Advertised the appalling human rights record of the Soviet Union.
Helped to mobilize Western opinion behind military and other programs intended to combat Soviet strength.
Identified Israel as a prominent victim of Soviet policies and hence a deserving recipient of Western material and political support.
Reinforced Israel's claim as the indispensable last refuge for beleaguered Jewry, while serving as a unifying catalyst to Jews throughout the diaspora.
Made heroes of good and brave men like Shcharansky, a matter of importance in the never-ending campaign against incipient anti-Semitism.
Shcharansky himself may well become yet another of the myths associated with his case. He has been substantially out of touch with his own society and the world, at least since his arrest.
It is difficult to believe that his credentials today include expertise on East-West relations, the designs of Mikhail Gorbachev, the case of Nelson Mandela, Israeli-Arab affairs, and the caldron of domestic Israeli politics. But in this media-mad era we expect not only heroes but polemical Renaissance men and, at one appearance after another, Shcharansky's views on these and other matters were earnestly solicited. To his credit, most such queries were deflected with characteristic humor.
Shcharansky's personal world has not stood still. During his internment, Avital, his bride of a day at the time of her 1973 emigration, has embraced Orthodox Judaism and also Israel's ultra-right-wing Gush Emunim movement, whose vision of greater Israel extends north to the Litani River, east to the Jordan River, and west to the Suez Canal.
On the night he came ``home'' to Israel, his wife addressed a rally for Soviet Jewry in which she urged her government to keep all the land it now occupies, saying it will be needed for future 'emigr'es.
Even during moments of supreme elation, the question nags as to whether freedom and dignity for Jews must be achieved at the cost of occupation and indignity for Palestinian Arabs.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.