Josef Stalin famously dismissed the moral authority of the Pope with the question: How many divisions does he command? For those of us who do not subscribe to Stalin’s vulgar materialism, nothing could be sweeter or more inspiring than to witness a Stalin or his successors brought low by the power of an idea.
Natan Sharansky has twice occupied a front row seat as a powerful idea transformed the affairs of man. The first time was as a member of the Helsinki Group monitoring Soviet bloc compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Under pressure from the West, which was itself shamed into action by Soviet human rights activists, the Soviets were forced to provide their citizens with a taste of freedom. That taste proved intoxicating, and eventually produced pressures from below on the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe that expedited their demise by years, perhaps decades.
Last week, Sharansky’s faith in human freedom was vindicated once again when President George W. Bush made a call for democratic reform of the Palestinian Authority the centerpiece of his vision for peace in the Middle East. Since the inception of Oslo, Sharansky has been arguing, almost alone, that only a democratic Palestinian polity can ever make peace.
Sharansky’s impact on Bush’s speech cannot be overstated. Over the past year, he has been in frequent discussion with the most powerful foreign policy figures in the Bush administration, and the weekend prior to Bush’s speech, Sharansky spent a great dea of time in Aspen together with Vice-president Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, both of whom played a large role in crafting the Bush speech.
Sharansky’s guiding insight is one learned from the great Soviet dissident Andre Sakharov: a nation that does not respect the rights of its citizens will not respect the rights of others. Or as Ronald Reagan, another president dismissed as simple-minded by the chattering classes, but who proved to have a sharper understanding of historical processes than his sophisticated critics, rephrased Sahkarov’s insight: a nation that cannot trust its citizens cannot be trusted.
Sharansky applied that lesson to Oslo. While Yitzchak Rabin savored the thought of Yasir Arafat, unrestrained by a "Supreme Court, Betselem, and bleeding heart liberals" reining in Palestinian terrorists, Sharansky warned that imposing a band of greedy thugs on the Palestinian people could never bring peace or end terrorism.
Totalitarian states, which exist for the benefit of the narrow ruling elite, he argued, are inherently warmongering states. Such states seek total control over the minds and bodies of their subjects, and the best way of achieving that is by maintaining a perpetual state of warfare and fomenting the hatred of the population against an external enemy.
In this view, the non-stop incitement in the Palestinian schools and media against Jews and Israel is a necessary, not accidental, by-product of Oslo’s reliance on Arafat as the Palestinian strongman. Over the nine years of Oslo, Arafat has whipped the Palestinian population into a frenzy of hatred far more intense than anything preceding Oslo in order to increase his power.
As Minister of Infrastructure, Sharansky had many opportunities to observe that control, not the well-being of the Palestinian population, is Arafat’s foremost concern. Again and again, Arafat turned down joint projects with Israel that would have benefited thousands of Palestinians, but also lessened hatred for Israelis. And he has calmly presided over the total immiseration of his people during 21 months of warfare. The more intense the warfare the stronger his position.
In contrast to dictatorships, democracies are inherently peace-loving. Democratic leaders require the support of the populace, and human beings generally prefer peace and economic well-being to a state of war, in which lives and property will be lost. That is why there has never been a war between two democracies.
Sharansky is not so naïve as to believe that democracy is a panacea. Palestinian elections could well result in the short-run in increased power for Hamas. And it also possible that the Palestinians will prove incapable of creating the institutions of representative government. All Sharansky is saying is that without a Palestinian democracy there is no hope of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
In his refusal to accept that Palestinians, in particular, or Arabs, in general, are incapable of democracy, Sharansky has shown himself a greater believer in "the new Middle East," than the godfather of the phrase, Shimon Peres. Peres could not bear to watch Bush’s speech to the end, and long with other doves, like Yossi Sarid and Shlomo ben Ami, dismissed Bush’s call for Palestian democracy as unrealistic. Perhaps. But if so, so are their visions of peaceful co-existence.
Meanwhile, if democracy can, in President Bush’s words, "blossom on the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza," it can one day blossom in other Moslem societies. That may well prove to be the best hope for counteracting the threat posed to the world by stagnant and backward Moslem societies.