Outside the pages of the Jerusalem Post, nobody in Israel seems much interested in Natan Sharansky's ideas on the democratization of Palestinian society. That is curious given that President Bush has been plugging Sharansky's new book The Case for Democracy: the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror as if he were receiving a percentage of the profits.
Prior to his State of the Union address, President Bush described Sharansky's ideas to Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times as "part of my presidential DNA." And the President told a CNN interviewer that anyone seeking a glimpse of how he thinks about foreign policy should read Sharansky's book. Not coincidentally, Condoleeza Rice cited Sharansky's "town square test" for political freedom in her confirmation hearings.
Nor is this the first evidence of the congruence between the President's thinking and Sharansky's. Bush's June 24 2002 speech on the Middle East drew heavily upon conversations a few days earlier between Sharansky and Vice-President Cheney in Beaver Creek, Colorado, where Sharansky gave the keynote address at the American Enterprise Institute World Forum.
Yet all this praise from the most powerful man in the world and Israel's chief ally has elicited only yawns here. Prime Minister Sharon once told Sharansky, "I understand that your ideas were important in the Soviet Union, but, unfortunately, they have no place in the Middle East." And that pretty much sums up the Israeli consensus.
Even as the The Case for Democracy heads towards the top of the New York Times non-fiction list, the Israeli media has basically ignored it. Nahum Barnea dismissed the book in a few sentences in Yediot Aharonot without showing any evidence that he had read it.
And Amir Oren in Ha'aretz broke the"scandal" that President Bush did not purchase the book at Barnes and Noble, but received it from a friend and political contributor, who also happens to be a friend of Sharansky. Oren also "revealed" that David Dermer, the Democratic mayor of Miami Beach and the brother of Sharansky's co-author, Ron Dermer, endorsed George W. Bush in 2004.
The refusal to confront Sharansky's ideas reflects, in part, the endearing Israeli conviction that we are smarter than the entire world. And, in part, it reflects sabra disdain for anything that smacks of pie-in-the-sky idealism.
If there is one thing upon which the Right and Left in Israel agree, it is that the Palestinians will always be Palestinians. Their society will always be nasty and brutish, and they will always seek our destruction. On this basis, the Right rejects any territorial concessions. Meanwhile, the Left concludes that since nothing can change in Palestinian society, the Americans might as well impose immediately the "fair" solution along the lines proposed by former President Clinton at Camp David.
Sharansky rejects the Right and Left's essentialist view of the Palestinians, and along with it their policy prescriptions. Unlike the Right, he is prepared for large territorial concessions. "The principle of individual autonomy remains sacred to me," he writes. "I do not want to rule another people."
But unlike the Left, he would condition those concessions on concrete reforms in the Palestinian Authority. Until then, Andre Sakharov's principle still applies: "A neighbor who tramples on the rights of its own people will eventually threaten the security of my people."
Admittedly, Sharansky's argument for the possibility of Palestinian democracy is not wholly convincing. Nothing in The Case of Democracy suggests that he has read or thought deeply about Arab culture and society. A long list of democracies that were once thought incapable of freedom is not proof that Arab society can also rise to the challenge.
It might be true, as Sharansky repeatedly states, that all things being equal the great majority of people will choose freedom. But all things are seldom equal. Where personal safety is totally lacking, for instance, many will choose security over freedom. And in every non-free society, there are large groups -- some of them close to the bottom of the social totem pole -- whose greatest fear is that in a free society their social inferiors today will become their superiors.
At the same time, it is impossible to dismiss Sharansky as simply besotted with an entirely unproven intellectual theory. His ideas on freedom and how it can be promoted have already proven themselves. The Helsinki Group, of which he was a leading member, insisted that the West could bring about an expansion of civil rights in the Soviet Union by conditioning foreign relations on Soviet recognition of human rights. The resulting expansion of personal freedom in the Soviet Union eventually brought down the entire Soviet empire.
Like the architects of Oslo, Sharansky offers hope that there exists a way out of the present impasse with the Palestinians. Unlike the Oslo architects, however, he does not urge us to undertake great risks on the basis of hopes alone. As he consistently puts it, the depth of Israeli concessions must be directly proportional to the depth of the transformation of Palestinian society towards freedom.
In short, hope is essential in the life of a people. But so is verification.