Sharansky Finds Bush White House Receptive to His Book on Democracy
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Sharansky Finds Bush White House Receptive to His Book on Democracy

Listening attentively to Condoleezza Rice describe President Bush’s vision of Middle East peace, more than a few of the 14 Jews gathered at the White House felt a sense of deja vu. Talking among themselves later, it made sense why much of it sounded so familiar.

When Rice spoke of “the stability of democracy” and “the fruits of liberty” at the Nov. 30 meeting, she was echoing a book by Natan Sharansky, an Israeli Cabinet minister and former prisoner of the Soviet gulag.

A conversation with Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council’s top Middle East adviser, confirmed the impression: A month earlier, Bush seized on Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” as validation of his own case for reform in the Arab world.

Having left his copy dog-eared, Bush told his staff to read the book as well.

“When the president tells you, ‘I want you to read this book,’ you better read this book,” Abrams was quoted as telling the Jewish organizational leaders.

In the book, Sharansky outlines a set of changes he believes Palestinian society must undergo before Israel or the United States agree to any concessions toward Palestinian statehood.

That idea, clearly enunciated by Bush and his Cabinet in recent speeches, has run into resistance from European and Arab allies.

Still, Sharansky can’t help but marvel at the success of his book, which was difficult to find in Washington book stores once news of Bush’s endorsement spread.

“I can’t say it’s a big surprise to me that the president is a man who shares my views,” Sharansky said in an interview with JTA last week in New York.

In fact, he said, the book was inspired in part by Bush’s June 2002 speech pegging Mideast peace to Palestinian reform. Sharansky praised the president as a fellow “dissident” fighting conventional wisdom.

Sharansky had expected his book to “trickle up” through think tanks, op-ed columnists and members of the U.S. Congress before it got Bush’s attention.

“In fact, the mission was fulfilled almost before it started,” Sharansky said. “On the third day of my book tour, my publisher received a call from the White House: The president is reading my book and wants to meet me.”

The Nov. 11 meeting, scheduled for 20 minutes, lasted 70. On his way out of the Oval Office, Sharansky apologized to former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who had been kept waiting.

“He was so helpful for me in the struggle for my release,” Sharansky said of the Reagan-era official.

Insiders say Bush wasn’t so much inspired by the book as gladdened by the validation it offered, from a celebrated survivor of the Soviet gulag, for his own theories that progress toward peace can only come after democratic reforms.

The Nov. 11 death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Bush linked to terrorism and despotism, was the main factor in the recent revival of Bush’s demands for Palestinian reform. But it’s clear that Sharansky’s book played a role in bolstering Bush’s position.

When they met Dec. 2, Bush urged Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin to read the book. Bush’s language in a statement after that meeting echoed Sharansky’s own.

“Achieving peace in the Holy Land is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement,” Bush said. “This approach has been tried before without success. As we negotiate the details of peace we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy.”

Bush’s new activism extended to his meeting last week with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

“The solution in the Middle East is for there to be a world effort to help the Palestinians develop a state that is truly free — one that’s got an independent judiciary, one that’s got a civil society, one that’s got the capacity to fight off terrorists, one that allows for dissent, one in which people can vote,” Bush said after the meeting. “And President Musharraf can play a big role in helping achieve that objective.”

That would be a role at considerable odds with a recent report from Bush’s State Department, which blasted Musharraf’s regime for extrajudicial killings, excessive use of force, intimidation of opposition figures and a judiciary with “low credibility.”

Still, the greatest threat Sharansky and Bush face in linking democracy with progress toward Middle East peace is from the allies that are closest to the issue — Arab states and the Europeans.

Secretary of State Colin Powell failed this weekend to bring Arab states on board. A get-together with foreign ministers in Morocco devolved into a repetition of long-held views about terrorism, with Arab leaders saying Israel is the crux of the problem and Powell saying reform must be a priority.

Europeans reverse Sharansky’s equation, arguing that concessions to the Palestinians will produce and bolster reform.

“Progress in the Middle East peace process will lend all reform and modernization efforts unprecedented momentum,” German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in Morocco.

Sharansky heard similar arguments in the succession of Likud- and Labor-led Cabinets in which he has served after his immigrant rights party, Yisrael B’Aliyah, was elected to the Knesset in 1996. The party ultimately merged with the Likud.

Moderate societies create moderate leaders, not the other way around, he argues.

There are “many calls from Europe and some other places” to get a Palestinian “strong man” in place as soon as possible after Arafat’s death, Sharansky said.

“That’s exactly to go back to the formula of Oslo,” which Sharansky says foundered because it relied on the goodwill of Arafat. Arafat never would let go of the external enemy — Israel — that he needed to justify his despotism, Sharansky argues.

The book sets out a three-year plan for the introduction of democratic institutions among the Palestinians: free speech; free press; freedom to organize politically, religiously and socially; an end to incitement; and the dismantling of refugee camps. Once the markers are achieved, Sharansky says, the Palestinians would be ready for elections toward statehood.

He supports the current P.A. elections, scheduled for Jan. 9, but only as a means to establish a credible interim leadership, not as a signal of real democratic reform.

Sharansky says the mark of a free Palestinian society would be his “town-square” test: Can a citizen walk into the town square and pronounce his beliefs without fear of retribution?

Sharansky concedes that Israel itself had 26 years, from 1967 to 1993, when it was in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to introduce the democratic institutions he now touts as crucial.

Instead, Israel muzzled the Arab press, punished Palestinians for displaying the colors of the Palestinian flag, ignored due process in its administrative detention practices, allowed municipal elections only once and kept Arabs out of positions of authority in the territories.

“Was it a mistake that we didn’t try to support the voices of real democrats among the Palestinians?” he said. “Of course it was a mistake not to try to support them.”

But had Israel tried to introduce such reforms, it surely would have faced resistance from the Arab world and the wider international community, where many were convinced that Arafat was the only possible Palestinian leader.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in Israel in 1986, days after his liberation from the gulag, Sharansky faced the challenge of squaring legitimate Palestinian longings with their culture of violence. He had a secret meeting with the late PLO official Faisal Husseini to discuss Palestinian rights; subsequently, Palestinians misquoted Sharansky as endorsing the Palestinian cause.

In fact, Sharansky considered it repellant to equate his non-violent resistance to the Soviet regime with the Palestinians’ reliance on violence.

“I was outraged at the use of my good intentions, to use me to introduce this moral equivalence,” he said. “That’s what restricted me in the first years” from further activism on behalf of the Palestinians.

Sharansky is optimistic now because Israelis are less and less inclined to insist on a “strong” leader as a peace partner.

“We had such a sad experience of the Oslo process, there are many people who are today much more open to these ideas,” he said.

Palestinians are as well. Nabil Amr, a P.A. Cabinet minister who quit because he was disgusted with P.A. corruption and who lost his leg earlier this year in an assassination attempt, welcomed any effort to further reforms among Palestinians, whatever their provenance.

“We need these reforms, and not just because President Bush asked for them, or any Israeli,” he told JTA in a phone interview. “We need these reforms for our people, for our future.”

That’s a view similar to Sharansky’s.

“It is not how these people treat us, but how these people treat their own people” that is important, Sharansky said of the Palestinians.

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