At Large

Sharansky’s Other Message

This supposed optimist is also the consummate Middle East realist and should be heeded as such.

By 3.6.05

Send to Kindle

JERUSALEM -- Last week Israel's minister for Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon requesting that he demand that the Palestinian Authority stop executions of suspected "collaborators" with Israel. Such "collaborators" are generally Palestinians who were "convicted" by the PA's controversial "state security" courts of tipping off Israel about impending terror attacks, or about the whereabouts of terrorists who were planning them. In other words, their "crime" is to assist Israel in preventing the mass murder of civilians.

Sharansky's letter to Sharon pointed to a contradiction in Palestinian behavior: "It is unacceptable that the PA demands the release of terrorists from our jails, and we respond affirmatively because of the hope for an opening to peace, while at the very same time the PA is about to commit state executions of people accused of helping Israel thwart terror.... It is impossible to build a peace process based on blood."

Last February 16, PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas already ratified death sentences against three "collaborators." And last week, the PA's chief mufti Sheikh Akrima Sabri announced that he was reviewing fifteen more death sentences at Abbas's request -- about half of the cases involving alleged "collaborators." Reports say the mufti has already recommended that five of the prisoners be executed, though whether they were "collaborators" is not yet clear.

These days Sharansky's name is associated with an exuberant optimism about the Middle East, and about all peoples' ability to create well-functioning democracies if given a chance. President Bush has sung the praises of his book The Case for Democracy and declared it to be part of his "presidential DNA." Events like the Iraqi people's insistence on voting despite a threat of terror, and the Lebanese people's agitation against the Syrian occupation of their country, are dramatic and hope-inspiring and seem to bear out Sharansky's -- and Bush's -- message.

What can get lost in the excitement, though, is that Sharansky is not an uncritical optimist -- far from it. If his overall message has not had much resonance in Israel itself, it's because Israelis have lived in the Middle East a long time and are harder to persuade that it's changing for the better. And Sharansky himself, despite his own optimism on the philosophical level, is actually -- a side of him much less known in America and the West -- among the more cautious and realistic Israelis when it comes to the facts on the ground.

INDEED, WHILE ABBAS'S election as PA chairman last January is commonly mentioned in the same breath with the Iraqi elections and, now, the Lebanese struggle (as well as President Mubarak's -- as yet untested -- promise of genuine multicandidate elections next September), the party over Abbas's "election" was one Sharansky did not join. Telling the Jerusalem Post last January 10 that this election was not "truly free," he explained: "Free elections can only take place in societies in which people are free to express their opinions without fear. This is not the case in the Palestinian Authority....there was no other candidate [than Abbas]..."

He went on to say it was a "shame" that, as Post reporter Herb Keinon paraphrased him, "the world uses the same words for completely different types of processes in different governmental systems, thereby making moral equivalencies that don't exist." Sharansky added in his own words: "This election can be the beginning of the democratic process only if we don't have illusions that democracy is already there, and that all we have to do now is give them independence. If that is what we do, then we will find that we have given independence not to a democratic state, but to a terrorist state."

Sharansky's unflinching scrutiny of the Palestinian Authority continued on January 25 when he drew attention to a detailed report on its promotion of anti-Semitism and genocide in its official media. Compiled by Palestinian Media Watch and called "Kill a Jew -- Go to Heaven," Sharansky summarized the study to reporters: "As in Nazi Germany, there is an entire 'culture of hatred' in Palestinian society today, from textbooks to crossword puzzles, from day camps to music videos. Calling for the murder of Jews, as Jews, is the end result."

(As shown by the Palestinian media's lionization of the recent suicide bomber at a Tel Aviv club, any improvement since then is still very partial. See also a report by Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.)

ANOTHER ISSUE WHERE Sharansky dissents from the prevalent -- including the Bush administration's -- perception is Israel's disengagement plan. Last February 20 when the Israeli cabinet (over one-third of which is now members of the dovish Labor Party) voted 17-5 in favor of the plan, Sharansky was one of those five nays. Indeed, if President Bush wanted to learn Sharansky's view on this subject, he didn't need to look far; on page 262 of The Case for Democracy, Sharansky writes:

"I...opposed...Sharon's disengagement plan because I did not accept the premise that there was no potential Palestinian partner and no hope for peace.... In my view, one-sided Israeli concessions would only strengthen the forces of terror and fear within Palestinian society, making it even more difficult to promote positive change and decreasing the chances of a viable partner for peace emerging in the future."

And just a few pages earlier, Bush presumably read criticisms by Sharansky that would have hit still closer to home, since they concerned Bush's own Road Map:

"The Road Map was the voice of Bush but the hands of Oslo.... The Road Map was effectively calling for a quick game of musical chairs among the Palestinian leadership, turning reform efforts into a farce.... In hindsight, the Bush administration's support for the Road Map seems even more shocking.... when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the rhetoric and the policy of his administration diverged.... the Road Map will not bring to fruition the ideas the present articulated on June 24 [2002]. It will not bring genuine freedom to the Palestinians, and therefore will not bring genuine peace."

There is a disconnect, it seems, between the Sharansky whom President Bush and many of his fervent supporters have adopted as a sort of standard-bearer, and the Sharansky who is much more reserved and cautious when it comes to the details of reaching democracy and peace, but who seems to be a victim of neglect. Some would say Sharansky himself is partially to blame for this in promoting an overly sanguine message in places far from the harsh sands of the Middle East. If genuine elections in Iraq and genuine popular agitation in Lebanon justify a measured optimism, phony elections in the PA followed by continued incitement and terrorism do not, and are reason to rethink political plans rather than accelerate them.

Perhaps the "other Sharansky" needs to make himself better seen and heard, even if it means detracting from the more cheerful image.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.