Why can't Israel elect this guy as prime minister?
Few people can claim to have left as impressive, varied and indelible an imprint on postwar Jewish history as Natan Sharansky.
The man who won fame for having stood up to an evil superpower armed with nothing but conviction, poise and resolve has not only endured lengthy years in prison and solitary confinement, but has also become an icon of the West's victory over Soviet totalitarianism.
Sharansky's eventual arrival here seemed like a natural continuation of his life before making aliya. First as a private citizen, then as a journalist and finally as a politician, he became an advocate for universal freedom. Having been fortunate enough to see his salvation followed by that of the rest of Soviet Jewry, he set out to help the masses of newly arrived immigrants overcome the hardships that inevitably involved their absorption into Israel.
That is how in 1996 he entered politics by establishing an immigrant party, and that is how he became a cabinet minister, a position in which he has been, on and off, for the better part of a decade.
As a politician, Sharansky's main accomplishment has been giving Russian-speaking immigrants a sense of belonging and an address for their many grievances. As minister of trade and industry he fought for consumer rights, demanding that retailers display prices, and as minister of the interior he eased some measures that had been designed to mistreat people whose Jewishness was doubted by the Orthodox establishment.
And yet, as he himself now concedes to the Post, the ticket on which he ran originally has clearly run its course, and happily so. The so-called Russian electorate has joined the Israeli fray and made its own political choices according to national rather than ethnic priorities. That is what the 2003 election showed, when Sharansky won a mere two Knesset seats, which he quickly merged with the Likud.
Back when he entered politics, Sharansky carefully avoided making a choice between Right and Left. Now he has made a clear choice. Not only has he joined Likud, he has, in fact, outflanked from the Right Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose disengagement policy he flatly rejects.
For Sharansky the icon, this is perhaps a gamble, one that makes some wonder whether he is not risking carrying his hitherto heroic biography into an anti-climactic aftermath as a political anecdote, yet another victim of the tiringly familiar, intra-Israeli territorial debate.
However, for Sharansky the dissident this position is a natural one. And he clearly is not disturbed by the prospect that the political part of his career may indeed be close to its end.
Having just returned from yet another US tour, where he spoke at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and met with President George Bush for a discussion of his new book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, Sharansky evidently knows that unlike most others, for him the possibly imminent end of his political career should not be the end of his journey. In fact, the political part of his life already seems to fill him with stoicism and humor rather than charge him with ambition.
"Without a sense of humor," he says, "you cannot survive in a Soviet prison, and without having the experience of surviving in a Soviet prison, it would have been very difficult for me to have survived the Knesset."
The Bush administration has made declarations about its desire to see states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia become more democratic. What concrete steps did you suggest to the president that the United States take to encourage those countries to democratize?
First, we discussed the principle that a dictatorship cannot be a lasting ally. They can be temporary allies - Stalin was a big ally of the West for four years, though before and after he was a big enemy - but they cannot be lasting allies. There is a whole theory about this that is discussed in my book and which the president accepts.
The problem is that with each country you have to build your own road map to democracy. In America, I was asked, "Pakistan is our ally now - do you expect us to start blockading it?"
Of course, a time of war is different. No one would have expected Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943 to say to Stalin, "You are not our ally because you have the gulag." But it was also not said in 1933. It was also not said in 1953, and it was not said in 1963. [There were those who] tried to prevent it from being said in 1973, when senator [Henry "Scoop"] Jackson was saying it. So there must be a differentiation between immediate cooperation and long-term cooperation.
The real problem is appeasement. Look at all the dictators in history you had to fight, whether it was Stalin, Hitler, or even Saddam Hussein... for us it was Yasser Arafat... there was a long period of appeasement, of a refusal to link the guarantee of human rights with the question of security.
I think, already back at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, America should have linked [military help] for Saudi Arabia to the freedom of immigration. There are so many Americans from Saudi Arabia who are suffering from the lack of freedom of immigration. As the experience with the Soviet Union showed, something as seemingly small as the relative liberalization of the freedom of immigration immediately puts tremendous pressure on a totalitarian regime. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it could be something as small, but very popular in the United States now, as minimal rights for women. It could be permission from some opposition delegations to visit Saudi Arabia.
What approach did you suggest the US take on new PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas?
I told them that what really matters is what the position of the free world will be. If the US, Israel and Europe say, "We will embrace you only if you embrace democratic reforms" - then you have a unique chance. But if the message will be, "Give us stability and then we'll talk," then I think it will be very difficult for him to bring about reforms.
If he does [institute reforms], he will have to fight terror, because the terrorists will resist all of it. But if he delays reform in order to fight terror, then he can have a cease-fire one day and allow terror the next.
If the Palestinians were to create a liberal democracy, what concessions would you be willing to make?
I think we have to start [to make concessions] long before they become a completely liberal democracy. But as of today, I think it would be a big mistake to dismantle even one settlement. We gave them Arafat's autonomy for free. We gave them recognition of a Palestinian state for free. And now we are giving them the disengagement for free. If the disengagement were linked to democratization, I would be the first to support it, rather than vote against it, as I am going to do.
Why do you think Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is so devoted to the disengagement plan?
My theory is that he is desperate because of the fact that, for so many years, Israel has tried again and again to make peace, only to find again and again that we don't have a partner. (On the contrary, we have the main source of terrorist activity.) And that the world is against us. No matter what we do, no matter that the Palestinians keep trying to destroy us, more and more is always demanded. I think Sharon is trying to stop this cycle by saying, we'll make one dramatic step that will be very difficult for us, and we won't link it to any demands [on the Palestinians] because we don't believe that they would fulfill any demands. And then we will get some relief from the rest of the world.
However, I believe not only that we will not gain 10 years [of peace], but that we will not gain even one day. It will just be used as a pretext to say, "Fourteen settlements is not enough, you must dismantle 24," to say that we will have caused further terrorism by not having withdrawn from more land.
As I have said since 1995, the depth of our concessions should equal the depth of the Palestinians' democratic reforms. Not only have our concessions not been connected to democratic changes, but they have been connected to steps that only strengthened and unified the power of Arafat. One-sided concessions, no matter how sincere, cannot bring positive change.
You quit the Barak government over Camp David. What are your red lines for this government, which has disengagement as its goal?
I ask myself that question every morning. I quit the Barak government to stop a dangerous process by bringing down the government and supporting an alternative. This time, I can't go from a left-wing government to a right-wing government. This time the battle has to be fought from inside the government and the Likud. I hope the disengagement can be stopped and I will do everything possible to stop it.
So, there are some very serious things that concern me. But if I am looking for excuses to stay, I have them. This government is not just about the disengagement. This government has also made one of the most important economic reforms in the history of the state, frankly. It has also made the issue of anti-Semitism a very important part of its work.
Regarding anti-Semitism, do you think that the recent attempt in Russia to outlaw Jewish organizations is just an isolated incident, or do you think it's a phenomenon that will spread?
You're talking about this awful, disgusting letter [to Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov in January]... It's very symbolic that 20 members of Parliament felt that it was good for their political careers to sign it... But Jewish institutions are developing, schools and centers are opening; the government is not creating any problems about this.
Putin still thinks that the best thing for him and for his government is to allow the Jewish community to develop. He has problems with some specific Jews; in his fight against the oligarchs he is using the prejudice of the people and saying that most of them are Jewish. But to say that there is a major trend of trying to undermine Jewish organizations, I think, is not right. People who want to be part of the Jewish community have the opportunity to do so.
Does the Yukos case in Russia remind you of "the bad old days" that you knew?
Yukos is a very serious case, and I feel a very deep personal sympathy. I think it should play a part in the contacts that Russia has with the free world.
Remember that for 1,000 years, the Russian empire ruled the very mind of its people, each and every one. Millions worked for the KGB. If your child said the wrong thing in kindergarten, you could end up in prison. It was a country entirely ruled by fear.
Today, we see that Putin is limiting journalistic freedom somewhat, and competition for power, too... but people live without that fear. There's no more gulag. And there's no way that things will return to such a state.
What just happened in Ukraine shows that there's no going back - because there's no more control over people's minds. Once the germ of freedom gets out... you can no longer have Stalin murdering millions.
Of course, that doesn't ensure perfect democracy. Only 12 years after the French Revolution, Napoleon came to power. So, you have to have constant pressure.
As a former dissident and Prisoner of Zion, are you bothered by the increasing use of administrative detention in Israel?
I do think it's very undemocratic, and a big problem. The first time I was approached about this issue was only a few months after I had come to this country [in 1986]. Palestinians approached me and complained that a group of people had been denied trials. At the time they were talking about just 13 people. Now, that's a dream, to have so few.
The problem is, we're at war. And in war, democracy is always problematic... Administrative detention is a necessity, but we must use it carefully. It's important to have laws limiting its use, and to constantly inspect it, under a microscope, with checks and such... because, very easily, we can go from 13 [people in detention] to 30,000.
Is it good? No. Does it bother me? Very much. But do we have a choice? I don't think we do. Does it require constant supervision? Absolutely.
After almost 10 years in the Knesset, your influence is on the wane. Is your political career coming to a close?
It could be... but, you know, I have never viewed my political career as an end unto itself. I never saw the establishment of a political party [Yisrael B'Aliya] as an eternal thing. It's a tool that, for a given period of time, is useful. In 1998, when I founded the party, I said that if we were really successful, we wouldn't exist in five years - because new immigrants would integrate into Israeli society, feel more Israeli and vote for larger "Israeli" parties.
As for my views on a Palestinian state, I'm still saying what I've said all along... that I'm willing to give the Palestinians every right except for the right to destroy me. And what's the only way to ensure that that won't happen? To demand that their state will be a democratic state, a state whose leaders are subject to the will of its citizens. Since 1993, we've gone further and further from that dream by endorsing a [Palestinian] fear society.
Now, we have a golden opportunity to bring about democratic reform because the one man who believes in that just happens to be the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. So I say, let's seize that opportunity.