A Scorned Idealist; George W. Bush Adores Natan Sharansky. So Why Don't the Israelis?

By Benn, Aluf | Newsweek International, March 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Scorned Idealist; George W. Bush Adores Natan Sharansky. So Why Don't the Israelis?


Benn, Aluf, Newsweek International


Byline: Aluf Benn (Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz.)

Natan Sharansky is George W. Bush's favorite author. Since his re-election, the U.S. president has used every opportunity to praise "The Case for Democracy," the new book by the former Soviet dissident, now an Israeli cabinet minister. "That thinking, that's part of my presidential DNA," Bush told The New York Times. Last Wednesday, appearing with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in Mainz, Bush said: "Sharansky's book confirmed how I was raised and what I believe." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quoted Sharansky's ideas in her Senate confirmation hearing in January.

Sharansky's political gospel stems from his personal struggle against totalitarianism--nine years in the Soviet prison system. For years, he's argued that international relations must be based on moral clarity, distinguishing "free societies" from "fear societies." This distinction has important strategic implications, he writes, since democracies avoid fighting each other, while dictatorships need external enemies, and hence export war and terror, to tighten their grip domestically. Like Bush, then, Sharansky is calling for the exporting of democracy and the toppling of authoritarian regimes everywhere. He prefers a hostile democratic leader to a friendly tyrant, and firmly rejects any affinity for "our dictator."

For all the accolades he's receiving in Washington, however, Sharansky carries little political clout back in Jerusalem. The Israeli media have largely ignored his recent American success, treating his rapport with Bush as a curiosity. When Sharansky made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) he was the hero of repressed Soviet Jewry. Now he's a minister without portfolio, dealing with Jewish diaspora relations and Jerusalem affairs. He's perceived mostly as a somewhat eccentric intellectual--an idealist with close ties to Washington. Most Israelis agree with his argument that the Oslo peace process failed because it fostered another Arab despot, Yasir Arafat, who spread violence and hatred against Israel. (Last week, less than a month after the Palestinians and the Israelis agreed to a ceasefire, a suicide bomber killed four people outside a Tel Aviv nightclub.) But many have doubts about the corollaries he draws. Sharansky rejects the notion that Arabs are "not built" for democracy. Nonsense, he says--the same argument was said about the Italians, the Germans and the Japanese before 1945. In his view, Israel must avoid territorial and other concessions until the Arabs are reformed and fully democratized.

A short man with a heavy Russian accent and a trademark khaki cap, a masterful chess player who never wears a tie, Sharansky sits on the political margins of the Israeli right. Always the dissenter, he is one of the Likud "rebels" against Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. In late February, Sharansky voted against the Israeli cabinet's historic decision to evacuate 26 settlements, citing the lack of demand for a Palestinian quid pro quo. More moderate Likudniks view Sharon's plan as a necessary evil. The left suspects Sharansky of using his democracy ideas as a pretext for holding onto the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

Sharansky argues that he belongs to neither political camp. "I always tried to say, but failed to convince [people], that I belong to neither the right nor the left by Israeli criteria," he says. "Here, it's all about the borders. To me, borders are between democracies and nondemocracies."

By the same token, Israel's military occupation of the Palestinians is the weakest point in Sharansky's theory: how can you promote freedom while your country rules over millions of Palestinians? …

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