Natan Sharansky may be President Bush’s second favorite political philosopher, but in his own country he is a Cassandra. The President tells one and all that if they want to understand his vision for the Middle East they should read Sharansky’s new book: The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. But Sharansky’s ideas about the correlation of Palestinian democracy and peace are ignored in Israel.
"I understand that your ideas were important in the Soviet Union," Prime Minister Sharon once told him, "but, unfortunately, they have no place in the Middle East."
After the American elections, British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeated the old blather about the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict holding the key to the myriad problems of the Middle East, and headed off for the United States to "kickstart" the peace process. The pundits all predicted that President Bush would sign on to Blair’s Middle East agenda out of gratitude for the latter’s unflinching loyalty on Iraq.
Too bad for Tony that just a few days prior to his visit the President had spent more than an hour shmoozing with Sharansky (and co-author Ron Dermer). Blair left Washington D.C with nothing to show his Leftist critics at home and echoing Bush’s mantra on Palestinian democracy as a pre-condition to peace.
Still Israel showed no gratitude to Sharansky, and gave no hearing to his ideas. And that is too bad. For the hero of the Gulag has had a front row seat at the cabinet table for much of the Oslo process, and is a keen analyst of what went wrong. In addition, he offers the only remotely plausible vision of how Israel and a free Palestinian state might ever dwell together in peace.
Sharansky’s analysis also serves as a valuable corrective to the general euphoria in the wake of Arafat’s belated passing and to the high hopes attached in some quarters to the upcoming Palestinian elections. The bright line dividing the world between free societies and fear societies is, for Sharansky, not elections but the ability of each citizen to proclaim his views in the town square "without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm." Without that freedom, elections are likely to repeat the pattern "one man, one vote, one time." As Sharansky puts it in his epigrammatic style: "One can rely on a free society to create a moderate, but one cannot rely on the moderate to create a free society."
Sharansky opposed the Roadmap, in large part, because it placed Palestinian elections at the beginning of the process. Until Palestinian society goes through a detoxification process, after more than a decade of whipping itself into paroxysms of hatred towards Israel, elections are pointless, in Sharanky’s view: "[T]hey will be held in an environment of fear and intimidation. [T]hose elected in that type of environment will have absolutely no interest in reform."
Instead of pushing elections, he insists, the international community should be focusing on fostering freedom of speech and press, and improving the daily lot of the Palestinian people by tearing down the fetid refugee camps that have been maintained for fifty years as breeding grounds for terror. It took four years from the end of the War before West Germany was ready for elections, and a similar period will be needed to move the Palestinians towards a free society capable of conducting elections, Sharansky argues.
The current Palestinian election campaign has done nothing to belie Sharansky’s gloomy predictions. Those elections are being conducted in an atmosphere full of fear. The New York Sun reports that voters are afraid even to be seen with the campaign material of any candidate other than Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s hand-picked candidate and the presumptive winner of the January 9 election.
Abbas, aka Abu Mazzan, has wrapped himself in Arafat's mantle, and promised never to compromise on the Palestinian "right of return," on full Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines, on Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, or on Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. And he promises to protect his terrorist "brothers" from Israel.
Most tellingly, Abbas has said that he will never turn Palestinian guns against any of the terror groups. He has not forgotten the shots fired in his direction at Arafat’s mourning tent, one of which killed a bodyguard, and has actively courted the armed militias. On a campaign stop in Jenin, Abbas was hoisted onto the shoulders of Zakaria Zubeidi, leader of the local cell of the Al Aksa Martyr’s Brigades, which have pledged to continue attacks on Israel. Power in the Palestinian Authority continues to reside at the end of a gun.
The significance of Abbas’s campaign statements will be downplayed on the grounds that he must say these things to be elected. In a similar vein, the international community urged Israel, throughout the Oslo process, to show "understanding" of Arafat’s repeated failures to keep his promises to reign in terror and incitement. Insistence on compliance would only weaken Arafat and endanger his life, Israeli leaders were told.
How a process based on avoiding any steps towards peace could lead to peace no one ever bothered to explain. And similarly today, so long as uncompromising hatred towards Israel is necessary to be elected Palestinian Authority prime minister, there will be no peace.