If one man in our time could be said to exemplify the power of ideas to change the course of human history, it would be Natan Sharansky.
In 1975 at Helsinki, Finland, the Soviet Union, eager to have its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe recognized by the West, agreed to Western demands that the Soviet bloc respect the basic human rights of its citizens. The Soviets doubtless had no more intention of honoring its undertakings at Helsinki than any of its other treaty obligations.
A group of 11 human rights activists calling themselves the Helsinki Group, however, had different ideas. They undertook to monitor Soviet bloc compliance with the Helsinki Accords, and to ensure that Western governments not sweep the issue of Soviet compliance under the rug, something that many of them would have been only too willing to do. Natan Sharansky was one of the founding members of the Helsinki Group.
The Soviet Union found itself under unexpected pressure by Western nations with whom it sought greater economic ties to recognize the civil rights of its citizens.The taste of freedom proved intoxicating. Once experienced, freedom could not be easily put back in the bottle. The more the citizens of the Soviet bloc learned of the world around them, the clearer it became that Communist model simply could not compete with that of the West in terms of the quality of life available to its citizens.
That was the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime. Though the Soviet system might have eventually have collapsed under the weight of its own failures, the early pressures placed upon the regime by a newly unleashed citizenry expedited that process by years, perhaps decades.
Dissidents within the Soviet bloc were aided by important allies in the United States. Even before Helsinki, Senator Henry ``Scoop" Jackson had forced the United States to link its economic ties with the Soviet Union to the latter’s willingness to permit the emigration of Soviet Jews. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. Like the current holder of that office, Reagan was often scoffed at by those who fancied themselves his intellectual superiors as an intellectual lightweight, especially when he dared to label the Soviet Union the ``evil empire." Rather than continuing on with detente as the sophisticates recommended, he challenged the Soviet bloc with a vision of democracy and forced it into a competition it could not win.
For their contributions to this process, members of the Helsinki Group were rewarded with one-way tickets to the Soviet Gulag. Natan Sharansky spent nine years in Soviet prison camps, much of that time in solitary confinement. Yet the process of liberalization that Sharansky and his colleagues forced upon their oppressor ultimately proved to be their ticket to freedom.
Sharansky brought with him to Israel the hard-earned lessons of his years as a Soviet dissident, chief among them the power of human freedom. Some refused, however, to see the connection. When Sharansky led his Yisrael B’Aliya faction out of the government prior to Camp David, the New York Times, the chief cheerleader for the Oslo process, was furious. Deborah Sontag devoted an entire article to exploring the paradox of the former human rights activist turned hardline nationalist. She found many eager to comment negatively on Sharansky as a pandering politician, but in all of Israel there was only one obscure chareidi columnist for the Jerusalem Post with a good word to say for him.
In fact, the alleged paradox did not exist. Sharansky continued to be guided by the insight of the moral mentor of the Soviet dissident movement, nuclear physicist Andre Sakharov: a country that does not respect the rights of its citizens will not respect the rights of others.
From the beginning, Sharansky was a critic of the Oslo process. Shimon Peres openly declared that Oslo was based on a ``leap of faith" that the inventor of modern terrorism would become a partner for peace – a messianic delusion that Peres is unable to shake until this very day. From that original leap of faith followed the second great failing of Oslo: the insistent refusal to focus on Palestinian compliance. The messianic belief in the peace process precluded attention to any unpleasant facts that would have revealed how ill-founded was the Oslo faith.
Thirdly, Sharansky bemoaned the lack of national consensus on the Israeli side. Oslo’s proponents were content to push through the most dramatic agreements in Israel’s history with a narrow one-vote advantage in the Knesset, even if that one vote had to be purchased with the promises of a Mitsubishi to obscure MKs on the other side of the aisle.
Sharansky’s most trenchant criticism of Oslo was a direct outgrowth of his experiences as a Soviet dissident. He understood, as no one else did at the time, the direct connection between Palestinian democracy and any hope of peace. The Oslo architects believed that Arafat would become their deputy to stop Palestinian terrorism. From their point of view, then, the stronger Arafat became the better. Yitzchak Rabin savored the idea of Arafat dealing with terrorists unconstrained by ``a Supreme Court, Betselem, and all kinds of bleeding heart liberals."
In article after article over nearly a decade, Sharansky argued that this approach would not, could not, work. Peace would never be achieved with a totalitarian Palestinian regime. Only a Palestinian democracy could make an enduring peace.
Democracies, Sharansky argued, are inherently peace-loving because their leaders depend on the support of the populace, and most people most of the time prefer peace and economic well-being to a state of war in which lives and property will be lost. Totalitarian regimes, by contrast, seek to control the minds and bodies of their subjects, for the benefit of the leadership. A constant state of crisis, even warfare, serves the interests of dictatorships, by making the populace more willing to tolerate economic deprivation and the curtailment of its civil liberties. All totalitarian regimes depend on fomenting hatred of an external enemy to distract the population.
True, Arafat waxed strong under Oslo, but only by whipping the Palestinian people into a frenzy of hatred to a degree unknown prior to Oslo. The non-stop incitement against Israel and Jews in the Palestinian school system and media are, in Sharansky’s scheme, the inevitable outgrowth of the lack of Palestinian democracy.
As Minister of Infrastructure, Sharansky saw his gloomy assessment of Arafat confirmed. Time and again, Arafat turned down projects for joint industrial parks and the like, which would have significantly bettered the lives of Palestinians. The economic prosperity of his people concerned Arafat less than being able to continue siphoning off 20% of the VAT revenues being transferred by Israel directly to his personal bank account. Indeed economic prosperity that lessens tensions with Israel undermines Arafat’s control, and thus has to be fought. That, incidentally, explains the riddle of Arafat’s lack of interest in ending the last 21 months of warfare that have immiserated the Palestinian population.
In recognizing that a Palestinian thugocracy could never be the means to Israeli security, Sharansky ironically proved to be a greater believer in the vision of a New Middle East than Shimon Peres himself. While both men believe that the key to long-term peace lies in improving the material condition of the Palestinian people, Peres completely failed to see the connection between doing so and creating a Palestinian democracy.
The Israeli Left views Palestinians as inherently unsuited for democracy. That is why Peres, Yossi Sarid, and Shlomo Ben-Ami all angrily rejected President Bush’s call last week for the democraticization of the Palestinian Authority as hopelessly unrealistic. Peres found the speech too disgusting to even watch to the end. Sharansky, on the other hand, views the Palestinians as no more incapable of democracy that Russians, Japanese, and numerous other peoples who were once thought to be temperamentally unsuited to freedom.
President Bush’s long-awaited speech outlining American Middle East policy proved to be the ultimate vindication of the vision of a Palestinian democracy that Sharansky, almost alone, has been advancing for years. Democracy, the President implied, not only holds out the best hope for a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also the best hope for counteracting the threat posed to the world by backward Moslem societies. When he spoke of the inspiration that millions around the globe will derive from the blossoming of ``liberty in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza," he clearly had in mind Arab and Moslem dictatorships.
Sharansky could have written the speech himself, and, for that matter, may have had a direct hand in its drafting. The weekend prior to the speech, he spent long hours at a conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute in Aspen secluded together with Vice-President Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. The Bush speech clearly represented a triumph for the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz axis in the administration over the State Department, which was eager to offer the Palestinians a provisional state immediately.
All Torah Jews should be inspired by the saga of the impact that one idea, repeated over and over again, can have. For if the idea of democracy can have such an impact on the affairs of men, how much more so the vision of the Divine Torah. And how great is our duty to be no less tireless in promoting the ideals of the Torah, in any and every forum, than Natan Sharansky has been in promoting democracy.