The Dissident: An Interview With Natan Sharansky

The Israeli minister talks about Arab dissidents, Israel?s human rights record, and the prospects for a democratic Middle East.

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Natan Sharansky is used to disagreeing with governments. After all, the former Soviet dissident spent 9 years in prison on charges of treason—a crime then punishable by death—for his human rights advocacy work. But things are quite different nowadays, and Sharansky’s new book, The Case for Democracy, has found no less of an enthusiast than President George W. Bush. The book’s premise is simple: the world is divided between “free” and “fear” societies, and free societies won’t be secure until fear societies become free. Because those who rule by fear will always need external enemies to keep their populations under control, Sharansky argues, promoting democracy is a matter of security, not just of lofty humanitarian motives.

On the day Sharansky and I met, March 14th, more than 800,000 Lebanese were rallying in Beirut, calling for Syrian withdrawal. Sharansky’s eyes grew with excitement as he cited the Beirut demonstration—the largest in Lebanon’s history—as proof that democracy was at last spreading throughout Israel’s neighborhood. Like Bush, he insists that democracy is for everyone. It is for the Russians. It is for the Arabs.

At home in Israel, where he is currently the Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, Sharansky is no dove. He was a fierce critic of the Oslo Accords and scoffs at the unofficial Geneva Accord, arguing that they failed to link Israeli concessions with Palestinian ones, like democratization. As Housing Minister in Ariel Sharon’s first government, he oversaw the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In his present position, meanwhile, Sharansky has chaired a secret committee that approved the seizure of East Jerusalem property of West Bank Palestinians, a decision which was reversed after an outcry from the Israeli left and the international community.

But Sharansky doesn’t get much love from the Israeli right, which has little patience for his talk about the virtues of Arab democracy. Neither, for that matter, does the Israeli left, which wants peace as soon as possible with whatever sort of Palestinian state is willing to strike a deal. Some lefties wonder if Sharansky is simply using the banner of human rights to insure the indefinite occupation of the territories. Meanwhile, both lefties and moderate right-wingers frowned on his vote against the Gaza disengagement plan.

Sharansky insists that he is neither of the right nor the left and that his commitment to democracy and human rights has not changed since his dissident days. He argues that the free world has been slow to recognize that it was the power of its ideas and diplomatic pressure which brought down tyranny in the Soviet Union, and that the same can happen in the Arab world. Sitting down with, Sharansky talked about Arab dissidents, Israel’s human rights record, and why he is optimistic about a democratic Middle East. In your book, you distinguish between free and fear societies. Why did you choose this distinction as opposed to the democratic vs. non-democratic ones?

Natan Sharansky: Well, “democracy” is a vague term, and usually when people try to define it, they speak about different institutions which have to be built and developed within a society in order to be called democratic, institutions which protect the rights of individuals. Then there is a debate over whether this or that particular institution is appropriate or not.

But I believe that if we look at the real differences that divide various societies, it is a question of fear—whether people are controlled by fear in that society or they are controlled by laws which protect them from arbitrariness. I’ve lived in a fear society, and I know how important the transformation from living in fear to living without fear is. This distinction helps to understand why, when given the choice, people in the world choose to live in freedom and not in fear.

MJ: You oppose President George Bush’s “road map” and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, arguing that like the Oslo Accords, they won’t help foster a free Palestinian society. What’s your reasoning here?

NS: Well, I’m not opposed to the idea that Israel should make very serious concessions and stop controlling the lives of the other people. But I am opposed to the current peace process plans because they are not based on introducing democratic reforms—that is, concessions from Israel are not linked to the question of democratic reforms on the other side.

MJ: You’ve felt that the recent Palestinian and Iraqi elections were premature. How do you judge their outcomes?

NS: I didn’t say they were premature, I said that you cannot call them democratic just yet, because democracy means both free democratic elections and a free democratic society. Right now, there isn’t a free democratic society inside the Palestinian Authority, or in Iraq. Still, these were very important elections as a first step. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis chose to go to the polling stations, knowing that they could have been killed, shows how great the desire is of people who have suffered in fear to move ahead to a free society. So, if we see these elections as the end of a democratic process by itself, then it’s a major mistake. But if we see them as something which gives those countries the opportunity to start an important process, then they should definitely be welcomed.

MJ: Some may people may see your prerequisite of a free Palestinian society for Palestinian statehood as setting the bar too high and say: “well, this is a way to insure Israeli occupation indefinitely.”

NS: Well, first of all, I don’t say that it’s a precondition. I think the two have to develop in parallel. But those who are saying: “Let’s first have a Palestinian state, let’s first have stability, let’s have first have leaders who have full control of the situation, and then we’ll talk about democracy,” that’s exactly how Oslo appeared, that’s exactly how the free world has been appeasing dictators. Stability is most easily brought by dictators, but that’s only in the short-run. In the long-run, these dictators are bringing you war.

So, for example, if we are talking about disengagement: When Israel leaves Gaza, I want to be sure that Palestinians who live in Gaza will stop living in refugee camps, that they will be able to begin to move into decent conditions, that the education for hatred in Gaza’s schools will be stopped, that free enterprise will prosper, and that dissent will be permitted. That’s what has to start to happening in Gaza, so that we can be sure that from the moment Israel loses control of Gaza, it will begin to turn into a democratic society, rather than a terrorist state.

MJ: Another criticism of you is that as Housing Minister in Ariel Sharon’s first government, you participated in the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And many people say: “Well, how can one promote a democratic Palestinian state while at the same time supporting settlements which Palestinians see as an impediment to that state?”

NS: Well, look, Palestinians see the strengthening of Jewish settlements as an impediment, and some Israelis see the strengthening of the Palestinian Authority as an impediment. But the truth is that if you really want to live in peace, with two democratic societies—Palestinian and Israeli—these must be societies where people can live without fear. And here’s something that’s strange. The whole world expects that Arabs should be able to live peacefully in Israeli territory—and as you know 17 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs. At the same time, the world also expects that Jews should leave the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority, because those Jews will be killed there. That, from the beginning, shows that the world expects very different things from these two types of societies.

I never saw the legitimate strengthening of the Jewish community in the territories under discussion as an obstacle to peace. Israel has showed many times that, as soon as there is any hope for peace, we will make all sorts of concessions. The last example of this was Ehud Barak. But if we’re making these concessions, I want to make sure that we have a reliable partner first, a partner who is also ready to take those concessions, for the sake of peace.

MJ: Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which have held, even though neither state is a democracy, why wouldn’t the same be true for an undemocratic Palestinian state?

NS: First of all, we want to have peace with everybody, whether they are a democracy or not. But the difference is that with democracy you can have peace that you can rely on. For leaders of democratic states, war is always the last option, but when you have peace with a non-democracy, you have to rely on the strength of your military to enforce it. So we have peace with Egypt backed by a treaty, but also peace with Syria without a treaty. In both cases, it’s because we can rely on the strength of our army. Peace with the Palestinians, however, will not come with their state safely behind the Sinai. The new state will be in the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In this case, it’s much more difficult for Israel to rely on the strength of its army to enforce peace, so we need a partner we can trust and rely on, a democratic partner.

One more word about Egypt. What’s interesting about our agreement with Egypt is that Egypt got a lot out of it: the territories, financial support, weapons from Americans, and so on. But it lost something very important to the government: It lost Israel as enemy. And for a dictatorial regime, an outside enemy is something that helps the regime survive. So they lost us as a political enemy, but then in the last twenty years they emerged as the new anti-Semitic center in the world. The country prints more anti-Semitic literature, like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, than any other Arab country, and that’s a direct result of the fact that Egypt is not a democracy. When they lost us as a political enemy, they still needed us as a national enemy, so now they’re becoming the center of anti-Semitism.

There is something that gives me hope for our future relations with Egypt, though—and it’s not just the fact that they didn’t try to violate the peace treaty for the past twenty years. That was only because they were weak and Israel was strong. No, the thing that gives me hope is the fact that now there are new demonstrations in Egypt, now the dissidents are raising their voice, and they see the support of the United States, they see that this regime has to start maneuvering. So I believe there is a serious chance that Egypt will become more and more of a free society. And the freer it is, the more reliable Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt will be.

MJ: If Israel doesn’t start withdrawing from the territories, within a few decades, it will have a Palestinian majority within its borders. Many Israelis worry that this will mean the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. Does that worry you?

NS: It worries me, but I’m optimistic. I believe that there is no reason why, in the next 20, 30, 40 years, there will still be dictatorial regimes controlling the lives of Arab people in this region, including Palestinians. And I do believe that democratic changes can happen in the next one, two, three years in Palestine, exactly as they can happen in Iraq and many other countries. And the more democratic the society will be, the more generous we can be in our concessions and we can finally end our control of the lives of other people.

MJ: You argue that the West has much more leverage over Arab regimes than it did over the Soviet Union, but at the same time, that Arab dissidents have gotten much less support than you and other Soviet dissidents did. Why do you think that is the case?

NS: Well, look, in the case of Soviet Union it was also a long process. Unfortunately, for Western democracies, when they deal with dictatorial regimes, their first response is to appease those regimes. That’s the flip side of the democracy advantage. It’s true that war is always the last choice for leaders elected by popular vote, but that also means appeasing dictators is always their first choice. And in the case of the Soviet Union, it took time for the U.S. to understand and hear the voice of Soviet dissidents. Only when the free world started caring about the fate of dissidents, the number of dissidents started increasing, and they were able to continue their activities in relative safety.

The idea that democracy would never come to the people of Russia and Ukraine because they didn’t want it was once very popular in the West. We had to overcome this prejudice. Now, today, again there is a prejudice that democracy has nothing to do with the Arabs, that their tradition is different, and so on. And that many leaders of the free world should try to appease dictators, to be friendly with them and guarantee their stability. As a result, they’re trying to hear the voices of dictators and not the voices of dissidents.

The situation started changing, though, from the moment the leader of the free world started speaking to dissidents in the Arab world, started supporting them. And today, nobody could say, as only some months ago you might hear, that there are no dissidents in the Arab world. Just an hour ago, I got another telegram about the biggest, democratic demonstrations in the history of the Middle East which are happening now in Beirut, in Egypt, in other places. So, that is the power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror, which is what I am talking about in my book.

MJ: Israel is often criticized by human rights organizations for violations of Palestinian human rights. As a human rights activist, which Israeli policies worry you and which do you feel have been unfairly attacked?

NS: Well, first of all, every restriction on human rights, however justified, worries me. I do understand that during times of war, free countries have to bring some restrictions. For example, Israel today makes a lot of administrative arrests. But it still worries me, of course: every arrest runs the potential danger of restricting freedoms in society, of undermining those democratic institutions which guarantee the rights of citizens. At the same time, that is war. And when I compare the record of Israel in a time of war with any other country, including America, including European countries, I can see that our record is by far better, by far. I don’t have to remind you what happened in America when it started war with Iraq, what happened with administrative arrests, for example. I don’t have to remind you that in Israel, the Supreme Court can interfere ub a battle within 24 hours, something that doesn’t happen either in America or Europe.

So, yes, practical every restriction on freedom which Israel has introduced worries me, and I prefer that they be as limited as possible and removed as soon as possible. But I understand the needs of a state during wartime. I am the minister for Jerusalem, where there were 27 suicide bombings. I have to guarantee the security of our citizens. So the army comes and says there are three options: Use airplanes and tanks against those cities from which suicide bombers are coming, which would mean thousands of Palestinians killed; or Israel could encircle the city with the troops; or we could build a fence. We chose to build a fence, and it drew protests from human rights organizations. Then our own Supreme Court studied the complaints of hundreds of people, Arabs and Jews, and said: “Here we permit construction, here we don’t permit construction,” and we accepted the decision.

But here I have to say that my biggest dispute with many human rights organizations, and I write about this in my book, is that they’re trying to take the issue of human rights and abstract it, and separate it from the type of regimes you’re dealing with. The result is that many dictatorial regimes use the banner of human rights to pressure democracies, which helps to decrease pressure on their own regimes. And that is my problem. Those who want to succeed in the struggle for human rights cannot say that these sorts of regimes are not their business. They can’t say they don’t care whether a state is a fear society or a free society. If they do, they will always be used by dictators who keep their own people in fear for their struggle against free societies.

MJ: What specific steps would you like to see U.S. and Israel take to promote democracy in the Middle East?

NS: Well, I think, the main steps are already in action. American and Israeli leaders have only to believe that democracy is possible. Everybody agrees that there must be some major, material contribution to help Palestinians to build their society. It must be clear that this contribution, this assistance, this legitimacy which is given to the Palestinian Authority will be given only if they themselves give economic freedom to their people, permit dissent, make sure that they’re improving the difficult conditions in which their people are living, start dismantling refugee camps and stop inciting hatred in the schools. In general, for the Middle East, I think what is important is that the leaders of the free world see that their allies are the dissidents who are concerned with status of freedom in their countries, rather than the dictators who are concerned with keeping their own people under control. And if the message of the free world is clear and strong, the changes will happen very quickly.


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