Moral Clarity and Murky Circumstances


The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror
By Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer
303 Pages. PublicAffairs. $26.95.


For a different reading of The Case for Democracy, click here.

Natan Sharansky is one of the genuine heroes of the 20th century. His prison memoir, Fear No Evil, portrayed an astonishing battle with the Soviet authorities. Unlike many of his fellow refuseniks, who fell out of the sight of the general public once they moved to Israel, he remained active in politics, founded his own party (which eventually joined the Likud), was elected to the Knesset, and became a fixture in several Israeli governments since the mid-'90s.

Sharansky’s new book makes a clear and explicit connection between Soviet tyranny and the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Therein lies both its value and its difficulties. Those who hail it find the comparison apt, and consider the maintenance of “moral clarity” (Sharansky’s favorite phrase) essential to avoid appeasing dictators and worse. Those who criticize it will find the comparison not useful, and even self-serving in allowing Israel to avoid dealing with the existing, or new, Palestinian leadership. This camp could misquote Donald Rumsfeld by saying, "You deal with the Palestinian leadership you’ve got, not the one you wish you had."

According to Sharansky, the ultimate division in the world is between free societies and what he calls “fear societies.” Ultimately, the latter define themselves by the denial of the rights which enable dissent. He emphasizes that, although there are of course variations and different limitations on rights of expression, societies are either free, or they are not, "with nothing in between." The Soviet Union is, of course, the prototype of the fear society; so are today’s Arab societies, very much including the Palestinian one.

Sharansky coolly denounces those living in free societies who are willing to compromise with and accommodate fear societies. For Sharansky, you do not make compromises with evil. You can only oppose it. He is equally unforgiving in his treatment of liberal western intellectuals who urged accommodation with communism or with the Palestinian Authority.

In this worldview, anyone who advocates accommodation with “fear societies” is fooling him- or herself. For Sharansky, this was the fundamental flaw in the Oslo Process, which aimed at settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through peace between Israel and a Palestinian Authority run by Yasir Arafat. For Sharansky, this arrangement was bound to fail, since a dictatorship such as Arafat’s must keep lying to prevent its people from learning the truth, which they would use to replace it. In fact, Sharansky has been adamantly opposed to any dealings with the PA since then, and strongly urges a policy, backed by the Bush administration, under which Palestinians must demonstrate their progress towards democracy before any serious responsibility is handed over to a Palestinian state.

Sharansky considers that the interests of the Palestinian people are the same as those of Israelis—and of all peoples, namely, in being part of a democratic society. The question he does not consider is whether the fact of Israeli control of Palestinian life since 1967, even if originally for reasons of self-defense, makes the situation far different from that in the Soviet Union.

Although he insists that Palestinians are as capable of democratic self-government as anyone else, a position he claims conflicts with that of many Israeli doves, he seems unaware that many Palestinian democrats, many of whom are affiliated with the Palestinian NGO community, have been saying that for many years. These are people who criticized Oslo precisely because it gave too much power to Arafat. However, these Palestinians, many of whom I worked with when I organized joint projects at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for Peace, also loathed the Israeli occupation and settlements. Without concrete moves towards allowing self-government, including withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements from most or all of the West Bank, they argued persuasively, the reform agenda would have little chance of success.

Sharansky does not condemn settlements, and has never supported the Israeli human rights organizations such as B’tselem, which monitors human rights organizations in the territories. Most Palestinians, including those with long track records in supporting genuine democracy and opposing Arafat, consider his advocacy of “Palestinian democracy” simply a smokescreen for maintaining de facto Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza (he opposes Sharon’s disengagement plan) indefinitely.

I think that view is too simplistic. Sharansky’s real passion crackles through these pages. He is undoubtedly a man who believes in democracy, and he raises difficult questions for both liberals and conservatives.  But his experiences in the Soviet Union, and his fierce determination to fight his enemies there, appear to have blinded him to the fact that all conflicts are not the same. He does not seem to realize that democracy is of little use if there is little contiguous land left to live on in the West Bank for Palestinians.

It was said of the British army that it was always ready to fight the last war. The question to ponder in reading this important book is whether Sharansky’s appeal to moral clarity fits the murky circumstances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or whether he has ignored the real dynamics of this conflict in favor of an analysis which will bring neither peace nor human rights to the Middle East. The American experience in Iraq, which Sharansky also supports, should help to raise some questions as to whether the importation of western-style democracy can work as well as some believe.

This is not an argument against democracy. But Sharansky does not seem to recognize that, unlike the situation in the former USSR, there are other factors at work in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On a final note: Sharansky’s name was in the news recently as the government member primarily responsible for invoking the “Absentee Property Law” of 1948 to East Jerusalem, which would have confiscated, without repayment, all Jerusalem property owned by Arab residents of the West Bank. To my mind, this would be the opposite of encouraging belief in the fairness and justice of Israel, and of democratic process. It now appears the decision will be revoked.