A Compliment Sharansky Can´t Refuse (NY TIMES) By STEVEN ERLANGER JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 02/02/05)
NEW YORK TIMES
NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-Top
JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 - Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident turned
Israeli politician, admits that his ideas have not much altered his
new country. Government after government, from the left or right,
have heard him out politely but then dismissed his arguments as
They seem to have found a place, however, in the affections of the
American president, George W. Bush, who has embraced Mr. Sharansky
and his new book, "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to
Overcome Tyranny & Terror," which depicts a clear moral universe
divided into "free societies," which promote peace, and "fear
societies," which foster war.
Mr. Sharansky developed his ideas, which are expected to be featured
in Mr. Bush´s State of the Union address, after years of battling the
Soviet system and observing Israel´s negotiations with the
Mr. Sharansky, freed from a Soviet jail in 1986 and an Israeli since
then, mused on his isolation here and his new fan. "I´m viewed as a
cosmonaut, who spent so much time in the Soviet Union I don´t belong
to this world," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "And now the
president is viewed as an astronaut, way out in space. And they want
me to explain how it looks from out there!"
Mr. Sharansky, now 57 and the minister for Jerusalem and diaspora
affairs, has been refining his ideas about the power of freedom and
human rights for more than 10 years, in articles, speeches and
cabinet interventions. He has spoken out against the cult of
stability in international affairs, the cynicism of backing
dictators, the refusal to apply moral judgments on allies or enemies.
He has opposed territorial compromise with the Palestinian Authority
until it keeps its commitments, democratizes and stops inculcating
children with hatred of Israel and of Jews. He has opposed Mr.
Sharon´s plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip. He has criticized what
he considered the Clinton administration´s pandering to Yasir Arafat
while ignoring his involvement in terrorism.
He always rejected the notion that Israel should help establish Mr.
Arafat as a Palestinian dictator on the presumption that he could
control Islamic fundamentalism and dissent.
Mr. Sharansky has even criticized both President Bushes - the father
for trying to preserve the Soviet Union in the name of realpolitik,
the son for failing to live up to his soaring oratory on the Middle
"Today they call me a right-wing extremist," he said, in a jovial but
practiced way. "Tomorrow I´ll be called a left-wing extremist."
What "I am," he says, landing the punch line, "is a refusenik," a
perpetual idealistic dissident from the messy realities of any
But as a refusenik - a Soviet Jew who applied for emigration to
Israel to escape persecution but was refused, deprived of a job and
rights and, in his case, sentenced to nine years in labor camps and
prisons - Mr. Sharansky has a special status here, the aura of a
As a Likud member and former Israeli ambassador to the United
Nations, Dore Gold, puts it: "Sharansky has a very powerful moral
voice because he was a prisoner of Zion."
When Mr. Sharansky created his own party 10 years ago, now diminished
and merged with Likud, his platform linked concessions to the
Palestinians with the democratization of Palestinian society and its
protection of human rights. "Everyone thought that was crazy and had
no meaning," he said. "But the fact that the president of the United
States is presenting the same principle makes it harder to ridicule."
The recent election of Mr. Arafat´s replacement, Mahmoud Abbas,
pleases Mr. Sharansky, who calls the event important as a nonviolent
process. "Otherwise they´d choose the next leader by shooting each
other," he said bluntly.
"It can be the beginning of Palestinian democracy," he said, "like
the Iraq elections can be the beginning of Iraqi democracy. But
there´s still a lot of fear inside. It´s a transitional period. After
three or four years you have a really democratic Iraq. And with the
Palestinians, too, it´s a transition. But it all depends on the
positions and policies of the free world."
Mr. Sharansky is careful to say that Mr. Bush came to his own
conclusions and found in the book a kindred spirit and historical
Mr. Sharansky´s collaborator on the book, Ron Dermer, is amused by
the new attention. "For years Sharansky has been almost a broken
record in Israeli political discourse," he said. "But now people are
finally listening, for some reason. He hoped for some echo in the
United States to the book. But that the president should be one of
the first Americans to read it is something we couldn´t ever expect."
The difference now, Mr. Dermer surmised, is the impact of Sept. 11,
2001. The attack by Al Qaeda provoked a realization that "the status
quo is no longer good enough," he said.
What connects Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharansky, he said, was "deep faith in
the universality of freedom and its transformative power."
When he was freed, in an exchange of prisoners with the United
States, Mr. Sharansky walked to freedom alone across the Glienicke
Bridge, from East Germany to the west. He was ordered to walk
straight across; a refusenik to the end, he zigzagged. He is
zigzagging still. (Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 02/02/05)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY