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A Compliment Sharansky Can´t Refuse (NY TIMES) By STEVEN ERLANGER JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 02/02/05)Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/02/international/middleeast/02sharansky.html NEW YORK TIMES NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-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 irrelevant.

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 Palestinians.

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 East.

"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 current order.

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 Jewish saint.

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 underpinnings.

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)


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