A Scorned Idealist

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? Unlike more-extreme rightists, Sharansky supports Palestinian statehood--pending democratization. But he also supports the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. As Housing minister in Sharon's first cabinet, Sharansky assisted the expansion of settlements and illegal outposts in the West Bank. More recently, he chaired an obscure cabinet committee that authorized the confiscation of Palestinian-owned lands in East Jerusalem (considered by Israel, but not by the rest of the world, as a sovereign part of its territory). When the story broke out, Sharansky justified his decision as an act of proper law enforcement. Washington, on the other hand, viewed the decision as an attempt to establish facts on the most sensitive ground of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel backed off.

Pressed on the point, Sharansky resorts to the kind of realpolitik response he disputes in others. Israel's occupation, he says, "is among the most humane possible for a democracy. Look what the Americans are doing [in Iraq]. If the Palestinians will only start cooperating with us against terror, all the roadblocks, and even the fence around Jerusalem, will disappear very fast... The depth of concessions should equal the depth of democracy."

Sharansky's biggest obstacle seems to be the indifference of the Israeli establishment. "I'm very frustrated," he says. "My ideas are not taken seriously at all." Why? Because, he says, they're perceived as "too disconnected from the harsh Middle East reality." Most Israelis fear that even if democracy took root in the Middle East, it might turn hostile--freeing the Arab masses to express their true feelings toward the Jewish state.

Long before Sharon, Israeli prime ministers from right and left have preferred to cut deals with their authoritarian neighbors rather than promote democratic tendencies. Even dovish Shimon Peres, the apostle of the "new Middle East," believes in an "economic democracy" for the Palestinians, rather than a political one. Sharon, says a senior Israeli policymaker, "likes [Sharansky] a lot personally, admires his intellect, but treats him with scorn."

A diehard believer in realpolitik, Sharon couldn't care less about Sharansky's, and Bush's, pursuit of democratic transformations. For him, it's all fantasy. Sharon supported the recent Palestinian presidential elections as a means to strengthen the hand of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, rather than as an expression of political reform and openness. The success of the Sharm al-Sheikh summit in early February, where an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire was declared, was based on a tacit deal between Sharon and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Both ex-generals need each other: Sharon craves acceptance in the Arab world, where he's always been treated as a monster; and Mubarak, angling for his fifth term in office, seeks relief from Bush's democratizing zeal.

In his book, Sharansky describes what happened when he tried to sell his ideas to Sharon during last year's Gaza disengagement debate: "My arguments could not pierce the skepticism. 'I understand that in the Soviet Union your ideas were important, but unfortunately they have no place in the Middle East,' Sharon told me, as many of my colleagues nodded in agreement." Still, as news of Sharansky's American stardom has made its way to Israel, Sharon has changed his tone. Last Tuesday, he invited the dissident minister to sit next to him at a high-level meeting. "From now on, I will promote your book like Bush does," he quipped, leaving the author to wonder if Sharon has bothered to read the tome at all.