No person in our time so exemplifies the power of an idea to change the course of history as Natan Sharansky.
He was one of the original members of the Helsinki Group monitoring compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords, under which the Soviet bloc undertook to respect the basic human rights of its citizens. The activities of the Helsinki Group shamed Western nations, with which the Soviets desperately sought greater economic ties, into pressuring the Soviets on human rights issues.
The Soviets were forced to offer their citizens a modicum of freedom, and that taste proved intoxicating. Freedom proved to be a genie that once experienced could not be easily put back into the bottle. The more the citizens of the Soviet bloc learned of the world around them, the clearer it became that the Communist model could not compete with the West in providing its citizens with a decent quality of life. That was the beginning of the end of Communism.
For his efforts, Sharansky was rewarded with a one-way ticket to the Soviet Gulag, where he spent nine years in Soviet prison camps, much of it in solitary confinement. Yet the process of liberalization that he 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 dissident. Chief among them was the insight of his great mentor in the Soviet dissident movement, nuclear physicist Andre Sakharov: a nation that does not respect the rights of its citizens will not respect the rights of others.
Armed with that insight, Sharansky was an early and trenchant critic of the Oslo Accords. 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 this approach was doomed to failure. In article after article, for nearly a decade, he argued that only a Palestinian democracy could enter into an enduring peace.
Democracies, he claimed, are inherently peace-loving because they depend on the support of the population, and most people prefer peace and economic well-being to a state of war. That is why there has never been a war between two democracies.
Totalitarian states, on the other hand, are by nature warmongering states. To maintain the control of a narrow elite such states seek total control over the minds and bodies of their subjects. Fomenting hatred of an external enemy is the best means of securing that control. Despotic regimes require a constant state of tension to distract their populations from their failure to provide personal liberties or economic well-being. In this view, the non-stop incitement against Jews and Israel in the Palestinian schools and media was a necessary, not accidental, by-product of Oslo’s reliance on Arafat as the Palestinian strongman.
As Minister of Infrastructure, Sharansky had many opportunities to observe that Arafat cared more about preserving his ability to siphon off 20% of the VAT receipts transferred by Israel directly into his private bank account than the economic well-being of his subjects. Again and again, Arafat turned down joint projects with Israel that would have benefited thousands of Palestinians, but at the same time lessened their hatred of Israel. He has calmly presided over the immiseration of his people over the last two years. The more intense the warfare the stronger his position.
For years, Sharansky was almost a solitary voice drawing the connection between Palestinian democracy and Middle East peace. When President Bush made his vision of ``liberty blossom[ing] in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza" the centerpiece of his June 24 address on the Middle East, Sharansky was vindicated. Significantly, not one major commentator had predicted the tack that Bush would take, just as few had picked up Sharansky’s message.
Yet by banging away at the same theme for nearly a decade, Sharansky finally found his audience. He spent the weekend prior to Bush’s speech in Aspen together with two of the President’s closest advisors, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Under Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz.
His address to the American Enterprise Institute-sponsored conference struck a responsive chord with key administration officials. On Saturday, Cheney invited him for an hour-long discussion largely devoted to the President’s upcoming speech. Later that day, the Shabbat-observant Sharansky, took a lengthy walk in the woods with Wolfowitz, on their way to a dinner engagement.
While President Bush may have signed on to Sharansky’s vision, neither Palestinian democracy nor Middle East peace are yet on the horizon. Democracy may be a necessary condition for peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians, but it is hardly a sufficient one.
The effects of the last decade, during which Palestinians have been whipped into paroxysms of hatred against Israel, cannot be easily or quickly undone. Declaring presidential elections a few months down the road will surely not do the trick. Whether Arafat or Hamas prevailed in such an election, the loser in either case would be the long-term prospects for Palestinian democracy.
A recent poll conducted by Bir Zeit University shows how far the Palestinians are from being ready for democracy. Asked about the prospects for fair elections, 47% of the Palestinians polled doubted they would be fair, while only 39% felt they would be. Far more disturbing were the answers to a question about the proper political system for a future Palestinian state. A plurality, 42%, preferred an Islamic state ruled by an Islamic party, while another 14% favored a presidential system ``as in most Arab countries" -- in other words, a one-man dictatorship.
If the United States contents itself with elections, without ensuring the other institutions of democratic government mentioned by the President in his June 24 speech – an independent judiciary, a free press, freedom of speech – a democratic Palestine can never emerge. A trusteeship consisting of the United States and other democratic nations will be necessary to create the institutions and conditions from which a Palestinian democracy can emerge. Those conditions include close monitoring of the Palestinian educational system and media to put an end to the incitement against Jews and Israel and the perpetuation of a cult of death and dying.
Whether the United States has the patience for such nation-building remains to be seen. But there are favorable historical precedents. After World War II, American engaged in such nation building in Japan and Germany, and succeeded in the space of a few years in transforming totalitarian societies, whose populations were possessed by xenophobic hatred no less frenzied than the Palestinians, into linchpins of the democratic world.
A democratic Middle East is certainly no more far-fetched today than was a democratic Soviet bloc when the Helsinki Group began its work. Saddam Hussein’s days in Iraq appear numbered, and the ayatollahs are tottering in Iran. Both countries possess a significant educated middle-class, making them candidates for democracy. President Bush’s speech has created pro-democratic stirrings among Palestinians, and the connection between Israel’s democracy and its comparative economic prosperity has not been lost on intellectuals in a number of Arab states.
Democracy in the Middle East may just be an idea whose time has come. If so, Natan Sharansky will again occupy a front-row seat as a powerful idea transforms the affairs of man.