Natan Sharansky: “Maybe this is the moment to put our trust in freedom”

Natan Sharansky

Natan Sharansky

Interview with Natan Sharansky: “Maybe this is the moment to put our trust in freedom”

‘Protests offer chance to build new pact with Arab world’

by David Horovitz, The Jerusalem Post, 02/11/2011

In interview in today’s Jerusalem Post, Natan Sharansky says pact can be built if free world helps Arab masses who are bidding to be rid of their autocratic leaders.

A quarter-century after his release presaged the disintegration of the Soviet Union, an ‘even purer’ push for democracy is unfolding in our region, says Natan Sharansky.

It was precisely 25 years ago that Natan Sharansky, icon of the struggle to liberate Soviet Jewry, walked to freedom across Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge, that narrow tie between the Communist bloc and the West. Behind him, back behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union, he left a vast community of Jews who ached to follow in his footsteps.

But not for long. The crack from which Sharansky emerged grew swiftly into a chasm. Within less than six years, amid the dizzyingly rapid collapse of the Soviet empire, no fewer than 400,000 members of that community had been freed to emulate him in making new homes in Israel.

What makes this anniversary particularly poignant is that it coincides with another potentially defining moment in the struggle for democracy over totalitarianism – a moment when people across our region, some tentatively and others more confidently, are rising up against their autocratic leaders. They are demanding the same opportunities, the same stake in determining their own futures, the same guarantees of freedom from persecution for speaking their minds that even the mighty, grey, terrifying Soviet bureaucracy proved incapable of denying to its masses.

And for all that tiny Israel is understandably concerned at the direction the truly free peoples of the Middle East might ultimately choose to follow with respect to our unloved Jewish state, Sharansky is enthralled and enthused by what is unfolding.

Six years ago, he published a book – co-written with Ron Dermer, now a senior adviser to the prime minister – titled The Case for Democracy and insistently subtitled “The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” But the skeptics and the self-proclaimed experts in this region always told Sharansky that, while he had evidently outwitted and outlasted the Communists, he really didn’t understand the ancient, bitter norms of the Middle East. In this part of the world, Israelis from Ariel Sharon on down would lecture him, bloody experience had long since demonstrated that nothing, actually, could overcome tyranny and terror.

Israel’s best hope, and that of the West, ran the thinking, rested in cultivating the more palatable tyrants. Arab democracy? How oxymoronic.

So this small, unstoppable man, who has somehow crammed long periods of dissidence, imprisonment, activism and politicking into his 63 years, is feeling a certain vindication on the 25th anniversary of his own liberation. Much more importantly, though, he recognizes the urgency and sensitivities of the hour. Huge public protest, the readiness to push for revolution, he says, is like water coming to the boil. Suddenly it rises up, overflowing with new capabilities. But slam the lid on, turn off the heat, and it falls back.

Iran saw a moment like this, less than two years ago, he recalls. The students, the unions, suddenly they scented weakness. Their frustrations with their Islamist rulers overflowed in the aftermath of the fraudulent presidential elections. They boiled.

But the West failed them. The West, and specifically, a new, untried president, hesitated. The moment was lost. The mullahs slammed the lid on.

This time, says Sharansky – in this fascinating conversation which took place at his chairman’s office in the Jewish Agency headquarters – Barack Obama is sending smarter signals. And Israel, he insists, must internalize how fortunate we are that the revolt is unfolding today in countries where the Islamists are not yet strong enough to sweep into power, in countries dependent on American aid, in countries where the West can yet seek to make its influence felt.

The unholy, unsustainable pact between the West and the dictators of the Middle East is being severed, as it should be, says Sharansky. It is being severed by the people. And their will must be done.

You crossed from East to West Berlin on February 11, 1986. I want to talk to you mostly about the parallels or differences in the processes that were unfolding then and now – with the Soviet Union beginning to collapse 25 years ago, and part of the Arab world in the grip of its peoples’ protests against dictatorial rule today. But let’s start with your memories of that unforgettable day.

It was one big ascent. It began the previous morning. I was taken from the KGB’s Lefortovo prison (where he had begun his imprisonment for the trumped-up crimes of treason and spying for the US nine years earlier, before being sent to the Siberian gulag). I was given all new clothes, for the first time in nine years.

I’d felt something was happening for the previous two months. They had been feeding me very differently. I had thought maybe the head of the KGB wanted to see me.

But now they were taking away all my old clothes.

Everything new was very big – not my size. I told them, “The pants are falling down. Give me a belt.” But I was in prison, so they wouldn’t give me a belt. They gave me some string.

They took me to the airport – after a fight for me to get back my book of Psalms – about half an hour from Moscow. A huge airplane. Me and four KGB guys.

But you didn’t know where you were going?

They didn’t tell me. But I saw we were flying west. About three hours. And then they came to tell me, in very solemn voices, that “in accordance with the decision of the Supreme Soviet whatever, for behavior unworthy of a Soviet citizen,” I am deprived of Soviet citizenship and exiled from the Soviet Union. And then I made a speech, about how happy I was.

You made a speech to whom?

To them. I tell them I want to make a statement. They say, “We don’t need your statements anymore.

It’s enough.” But I thought it was a great moment, even though I was on the plane with only those four people. I’m really free. So I made a statement.

To the four KGB guys?!

Yes. I tell them I’m very happy that after 13 years, my request [to leave for Israel] has been accepted. And I add – it was important for me to say this – that I was never a spy. That I was fighting only for the right of Soviet Jews and others to be free. And that I hope the day will come when all people will become as free as I am today.

And then I read my Psalms.

Then we landed. And I was disappointed to see signs everywhere – GDR, the German Democratic Republic. I had thought, oh, now I’ll see my wife. And then the American ambassador in East Berlin meets with me, and explains to me that tomorrow I’ll be exchanged, but that today I’m in the hands of the East German KGB, and so don’t make any trouble.

They take me to some KGB place in the forest to sleep that night. I don’t sleep for a minute.

Then the next day they take me to the bridge. There, the American ambassador from West Berlin accompanies me. And there’s a white line across the center of the Glienicke Bridge. I ask him, “Where exactly is the border?” He says, “This line is the border.”

It was so clear. This line is the West. Freedom! So I jump. And that string breaks. And I, at the last moment, catch my pants.

So when I’m asked, “What was your first thought on entering the West?” I have to answer, “That I was going to lose my pants.”

They take me straight to a car.

They call the State Department to tell them that I’m free. I ask to send my regards to the president [Ronald Reagan].

They take me to a military base, and prepare to fly me to Frankfurt where a plane is waiting to fly me to Israel. We sit on the plane for 20 minutes. Then we hear that the brakes are broken, and we have to switch planes. I can’t believe it. We’re not in a Soviet airplane! This is the first American plane in my life, and the brakes don’t work.

So we change planes and fly to Frankfurt. And I see my wife, Avital, for the first time in 12 years. And then with my wife, in a much smaller airplane, I come to Israel. And all my world is with me, and we finish at the Kotel.

So it was like one big ascent – from Moscow, first airplane, second airplane, third airplane, straight to the Kotel. If there is someone who went from hell to paradise, then that’s how I feel.

That was really a very powerful feeling, and it’s with me to this day. Of course, after that, the only way is down, so I’ve been going down for 25 years. And I’m still in paradise.

So out of the blue, you find yourself free and moving to Israel, and able to start life over, or a free life for the first time. How would you describe it? And did you have goals for yourself? Had you said to yourself, when I’m allowed to live freely, these are the things I want to achieve?

Actually it was very smooth. I didn’t stop one life and start another. There was a big change in my life, when I switched from being a loyal Soviet citizen to becoming a dissident; from a double-thinker to a dissident. Physically there was a change, because you are becoming oppressed, searched, arrested and so on. But also psychologically, because I became a free person.

And that was at what age? At the age of 25, in 1973, and I was arrested four years after this. From then, it was all one struggle. And when I got out, as I said at the airport [in Israel], of course we had to continue our struggle, and not forget those who were still there.

I was a free person in prison and now I remained a free person in Israel, who suddenly had many more tools. So, you continue the struggle, at the same time while building our family, after 12 years. That was a challenge by itself.

Immediately, I spent a lot of time in America organizing that famous demonstration [to free Soviet Jewry in December 1987] in Washington. I had to spend three months to convince the [Jewish] establishment, and to go to different communities, to have this demonstration [to coincide with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit].

It helped that I didn’t feel as though I was in a different chapter, that my life was absolutely different. It was different.

But it was like the next floor in the same building.

The initial challenge was to make sure that everybody else got out as well?

In terms of the public challenge, yes, it was. In terms of my personal state of mind, you continue that struggle. You had this evil empire against you. You were in solitary confinement in this punishment cell. But you felt that in fact you were challenging the whole empire, and that the whole Jewish world was behind you.

Now I had moved from that cell to Israel, thank God, but it was the same confrontation.

And it also involved a big debate with the establishment.

There was a debate about whether there were hundreds of thousands of people who wanted to (leave the Soviet Union) or just two thousand. We were insisting that there were hundreds of thousands. The more the Iron Curtain fell down, the more it became clear that we were right. And that heightened the feeling of responsibility. You moved from one struggle, against the KGB, to this other struggle, for the others coming.

Your “big debate with the establishment”: Is that the American establishment, the Israeli, the Jewish Diaspora?

Confrontation with the Israeli establishment started long before I came to Israel, because I was a friend of Andrei Sakharov (eminent Soviet physicist, then dissident and Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist) and because I was the spokesman of two movements at the same time – the dissident movement and the Zionist movement. I was seen to be endangering the idea that [it might be possible to] quietly take the Jews out without confrontation with the KGB. Of course, that was an idiotic idea.

[The Israeli establishment] also believed that mixing the dissident movement, the human rights movement, with the Zionist movement, was extremely dangerous. Some of them became very tough. They called my wife and said that I had crossed all the lines. That I would go to prison, and they would not defend me. They told her: Forget about him; we will find you another husband.

These were some people from Lishkat Hakesher (the Israeli government’s liaison organization with Jews in the Soviet bloc), who were like commissars of Zionism.

In the first year after I was arrested, particularly, Avital (who had immigrated to Israel immediately after their wedding in 1974, when her exit visa was granted and his was not) had to fight in spite of the Israeli establishment, who tried to stop the public fight [on my behalf] because they were afraid of the trouble my dissent might cause.

That was one area of confrontation.

Second was the fact that the Israeli establishment was very concerned that the Jews not go to any other place but Israel. They would have preferred that [Soviet Jewish emigration] be slower, but that they all go here. I was one of those respectable Zionists who didn’t agree with the Israeli demand.

As for the American Jewish establishment, they were afraid to be seen as troublemakers.

They played a very important role. They were not bad guys.

They were very good guys. But, for instance, they were fearful about this planned massive demonstration of hundreds and thousands of Jews to coincide with Gorbachev’s visit. I had said we should get 400,000 people to demonstrate so that the figure would be remembered: 400,000 Americans will come because there are 400,000 Russian Jews who want to leave.

They said: “Who said that there are 400,000 Jews?” They said: “We have a list of a few thousand refuseniks. We have to speak about them.

Second, they said, “You’re coming here and telling us about things that you don’t understand.

Hundreds of thousands of American Jews will not come in winter to Washington.” And the specialists from the establishment counted: “17,000 – that’s the maximum figure that we can deliver. In winter, more people will not come. And you will make us look awful. Then you’ll just go back to Israel. But we will have to live with this: that we promised hundreds of thousands and didn’t deliver.”

Third, and most important, was their argument that “everyone is speaking about peace.

Gorbachev finally is a good guy.

There are such big hopes. He comes here to symbolize this new hope. And we Jews will be the ones to destroy all this.”

I realized that nothing major was going to happen [to heighten momentum for Soviet Jews to go free]. So I moved in August [to the US], ahead of Gorbachev’s visit in December. I visited 30 communities. Every community was so enthusiastic [about the planned demonstration].

In the end, as Avital had predicted, the establishment understood that, instead of resisting, it should go ahead with this. As Avital had told me, “they will eventually go with you, they will take credit, and then you’ll know that you have won.” And that’s exactly what happened. And that was wonderful.

They all joined. They all led. On the 6th of December, 1987. There were 250,000 people, not 400,000…

But not 17,000 either.

No. And it was the same number as Martin Luther King brought [to his civil rights march in 1963]. All the Jews were very proud. And Reagan said to Gorbachev, “You see, my people will never permit me to have a friendship with you” [unless you let Soviet Jews go]. Next day, I came to Capitol Hill, and Jewish congressmen were coming up to me and saying “This was our best day. All our colleagues are coming up to us and saying we all have to learn from you, from the Jews.” So not only didn’t it cause trouble. To the contrary.

And now we also know from Gorbachev’s people and others how important it was. He had to be pushed, and this was really the last straw.

And then a year after this, the big wave of aliya started. And 400,000 came to Israel in two years.

And in total, until today?

More than one million.

And how many Jews are still in the Soviet Union?

Approximately one million came to Israel, one million left for other countries, and 850,000 eligible under the Law of Return are left in the former Soviet Union.

And what’s the aliya rate now?

About 7,000 a year coming here from the former Soviet Union.

And more going elsewhere?

No. That wave is over. Germany is finished. Those who wanted to go to America, on the whole, have gone.

In terms of your continuing challenge, then, the Jews got out. And then stage two, integration. With a 25-year perspective, how has integration gone?

Great. Of course, there are stories about unjust attitudes of society to new immigrants. It’s largely nonsense. There will always be some frictions. And of course there were many bureaucratic problems. There still are.

Housing for the elderly. The problem of conversion. But that’s a problem of our society rather than of aliya, the question of what it means for the Jewish state to be connected to the Jews of the world.

If you look at the big picture, we had a 20 percent population influx. That’s like all of France moving to America. The integration is unbelievably successful.

The average quality of life [of these immigrants] is not higher or lower than the average of all Israelis. Look at any hospital, at any university, at any hi-tech firm. It sometimes seems like they conquered the country.

There are two reasons for this.

One, that our society is very open to the idea of aliya. For all the budget cuts over the years, there was never a question that if Jews had to be helped to be brought here, this would happen.

And two, Israel society had also been very paternalistic toward new immigrants, but this aliya really changed this approach by taking its fate into its own hands. Even when the establishment said no to Russian theater, Russian theater appeared nonetheless, for example. And when it was realized that political tools were needed to get things done, we created our party (Yisrael B’Aliya, which operated from 1996 until it merged into the Likud in 2003). For the first time in history, new immigrants entered the Knesset and the government.

And, most importantly, the municipalities, where absorption really took place. And so they became part of the decisionmaking process.

What of the country you left behind? Looking back from 2011, do you feel that the Soviet Union has democratized? Is the political climate there sliding back to totalitarianism?

Russia is still very far from Western democracy. This is especially clear in the judicial system. The courts are not really independent. But those who say it’s the same kind of dictatorship as the Soviet Union, that’s ridiculous. That was a country that was ruled by the KGB. It had millions in the Gulag. There was an army of informers.

Today, it’s a different reality.

What happened there, then, is very appropriate to what’s happening now, in our region. People in all cultures under dictatorship become double-thinkers.

They live in fear. And they don’t want to live in fear. So when they have a choice to end that, they make that choice.

This double-think, this state of fear, and this desire to get out of fear, is exactly what we see today in the Middle East. All people want to be free, but in the Soviet Union there were also large numbers of nationalities and faiths which were almost erased and which people wanted to live under. What’s happening now in Tunisia, in Egypt, it’s a much more pure example.

In Tunisia, you don’t have any oppressed nationalities. And there was no strong struggle between fundamentalists and secularists. People didn’t take to the streets because of any of that. They simply felt that there was a chance, finally, not to have to live under dictatorship, and that’s what they wanted.

And that in turn showed the double-thinkers of Egypt that maybe this was the moment for them, also, to go into the streets. Now, in Egypt, people will say that there are problems with the Copts, and everybody will say that there are problems with the Palestinians and the Israelis [that generate public protest]. But those who went on the demonstrations didn’t go out for the rights of the Coptic Church, and not because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

What brought them to the streets was that they didn’t want to continue living in a fear society, a society in which people who stand up against Hosni Mubarak finish in prison. People like my friend [human rights activist] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who said 10 years ago that Mubarak would put his son [Gamal] in power after him, went to prison, and would still be there were it not for intervention of [the West, and notably] president George W.


There are always very few dissidents.

But the moment people stop feeling afraid, suddenly there are millions of them.

What brought them out to the streets was the desire not to have to live in a climate where what exactly prevailed?

When you have a government which is unchanging, which is not very democratic, the people will have many complaints. And when they express those complaints [in such regimes], they get punished. That’s something that people don’t like. They have to live under self-control, careful about what they say because they will be punished.

In Egypt, five years ago, for example, the editor of a newspaper was simply dragged out of the city and left naked and told not to dare publish one more article against Mubarak. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, likewise, said on the record that elections would be irrelevant, that the next president would be Mubarak’s son.

He was arrested the next day.

That’s what happens on the top. That means that, on the lower level, people must constantly control themselves – what they can and can’t say. It’s a very uncomfortable life. If you can get rid of it without risking your life, you try to do that.

And that’s what people in Egypt are doing now?

Yes. And that’s my theory as expressed in my book The Case for Democracy: In every dictatorship, the longer it exists, the more true believers turn into double-thinkers. Then, in the final years of a dictatorship, practically everybody is a double- thinker.

That’s why I was saying, long ago, that Iran is absolutely ripe for social revolution. Iran is actually a unique example where within one generation, very quickly, almost all the true believers became doublethinkers.

There is a very critical moment, which is called revolution.

When does it happen? When suddenly big masses of double-thinkers – not one, not two – go over to dissent. It’s like boiling water, when it reaches 100 degrees. Now, if that moment [is missed, and] it goes back, it will immediately disappear.

That’s what happened in Iran [when the demonstrations erupted and then faded after the 2009 elections]. Some of the people – big student organizations, trade unions – felt that they could go to the barricades.

And millions more were sitting and waiting, with all this Facebook and Internet. But then, at that moment, the leader of the free world indicated that for the US, engagement with the regime was more important than changing the regime. And immediately, it all collapsed.

At that critical moment, the president of the United States failed them?

Oh yes. And that’s what I said to his closest advisers at the time – that I couldn’t understand how the president of the United States could make such a speech. By the way, his speech on the first anniversary of the revolution was great. But it was exactly one year late. Because now, to take these doublethinkers and turn them into dissidents again, well, it’s still there, but you need a more serious push.

The more cruel the dictatorship, the more difficult it is. In Tunisia, there was a moment when the dictatorship became very weak and the people felt very capable. That definitely impacted on Egypt. Dissent was big. Mubarak looked weak, because of his health and other factors. And they rushed out.

And now, more than two weeks later? Has the president of the United States got it right this time?

Much better. Though it’s easy to be better than he was on Iran, which was terrible. I was in the United States in those first days of protest in Egypt, and [Vice President] Biden said, of course Mubarak is not a dictator.

My God, I thought! Millions of people are going to the streets to say Mubarak is a dictator, and the leaders of America say he isn’t?! But the next day, I see something happened in the White House, and Hillary Clinton comes out with a better statement and President Obama says the right thing.

The “right thing” being that the people of Egypt must determine their own future?

Yes. Now the critical step, which has not yet been made but which can be made, is the linkage. The free world is lucky here in two respects. First, that what happened in Egypt happened when the Muslim Brotherhood is not yet strong enough [to sweep into power]. The longer there is dictatorship, the longer the free world helps to destroy all democratic dissent, the stronger the Muslim Brotherhood becomes. In Prague, in 2007, (at a meeting of international dissidents that Sharansky organized), Saad Eddin Ibrahim asked president Bush, Why are you supporting Mubarak? Bush answered: Because otherwise there will be the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim said: That’s a mistake. That if you want the choice for Egyptians to be either Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, it will ultimately be the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ten years ago, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would have had 10% support. Today they say they have 25 or 30%.

Who knows what it will be in 10 years if things don’t change.

People are unhappy. The only alternative to that unhappiness has been the Muslim Brotherhood.

The free world has been helping to destroy any democratic alternative.

So it is good that this is all happening now in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood is not strong enough.

And secondly, it is good that it is happening in an Egypt that gets the second biggest foreign aid package from the United States [after Israel]. America has a lot of leverage. A lot of linkage for any future Egyptian leader.

Whoever will be the leader of Egypt, if he wants to solve problems, he will be very dependent on the free world. He will not go to Iran for help.

If the free world makes clear that our help is tied to democratic reforms, there is a chance finally to start building a drive forward. This [untenable] pact between the free world and a bunch of dictators ostensibly bringing us stability was not broken by the free world. It was broken by the people in the streets. We have to go with this.

This is the chance. I hope America will take it.

We saw a White House that quickly, to the dismay of some in Israel, abandoned its ally Mubarak and has also encouraged the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the transition process. Is America getting this right?

America gets it right that Mubarak is a very problematic ally and in the long run cannot be any kind of ally. That’s true about all the dictators. At some moment, America will get it about Saudi Arabia. That was always the most difficult case, even among those [American presidents] who understood…

Like George Bush.

Bush went further with the freedom agenda than any other.

It was great. He really, idealistically believed in this. The point on which he disagreed with me – although he told everyone to read my book – was over elections.

[Contrary to what Bush believed], freedom and democracy doesn’t mean elections.

Democracy is about free elections and free society. You must have free institutions.

He rushed into elections [for the Palestinian parliament in 2006]. He forced Israel to accept Hamas as part of the democratic process. Under all our agreements, we didn’t have to accept Hamas, because it denies our right to exist. And it was a clearly anti-democratic choice. He rushed to elections when the only choice for the Palestinians was between the torturing thugs of Yasser Arafat, who we empowered, and the terrorists from Hamas who were defending them. They voted for Hamas, an absolutely nondemocratic element. That was [Bush’s] mistake.

With the Obama administration – instead of taking a principled position and supporting any leadership which will support democratic reforms, and saying we will go together with you through these reforms and help – the danger is [over the readiness for] engaging: We will engage with whatever will come as a result. We’ll make them part of the process. That’s exactly how Hizbullah in Lebanon, step by step, became [ostensibly] legitimate partners.

On the day of the elections in the Palestinian Authority, I was at the White House, saying to them, this is your last opportunity.

In 24 hours, the election results will be announced. You need to say that the results of the election have got nothing to do with democracy. Otherwise the whole world will say, well, this is Bush’s democracy: Hamas. And I was getting explanations: We’ll impose conditions; they will not be a majority in the government, this and that.

Elaborate please on why elections alone do not constitute democracy, on why you need free elections in a free society.

A free society means that there are institutions which guarantee to every individual the opportunity to choose between different ways of life, and that their lives will not be in danger, whatever they choose. In the Palestinian society, for instance, they had Israel’s occupation. After that, they had Yasser Arafat, who turned his Authority into a type of Mafia-run country where people were paying him patronage. I can tell you, as a former minister of industry and trade who tried to negotiate with Nabil Sha’ath on joint ventures to help their economy and create more jobs, that they were not interested in anything that would make their people more independent of them. They were interested only in how to establish more control.

People were really fed up with this. That created a really nasty situation.

Then, there was a transition to Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) after Arafat died. And Bush asked me, is Abu Mazen a good guy or a bad guy? I told him, I can prove to you that he’s a bad guy, because I read his PhD (on the purported connections between the Nazis and Zionist leaders) in Russian. And I can prove to you that he’s a good guy in comparison with Arafat, because I saw them both at the negotiating table. But it doesn’t matter. He will now depend fully on your policy. The Palestinian Authority is fully dependent on the free world. America.

Europe. If your policy is clear linkage to specific reforms, and you make plain that is there is no way Abu Mazen will get any legitimacy, or any recognition, or any support otherwise, he will go with it.

In fact, Bush did put these demands to Abu Mazen, but he never made the linkage explicit.

He didn’t say: If you don’t do this, these are the consequences.

And of course he didn’t have Europe behind him.

That meant the Palestinians moved almost immediately (to elections) from a situation in which they were still full of fear of the Arafat regime. In some Christian villages, Hamas was deemed to be a better protector, so the Christians suddenly became fundamentalists and voted for Hamas. That’s what you get when you have elections in a fear society. [The elections reflect only] the balance of fear.

In that balance of fear, at that moment, Hamas got 51%. At some other moment, it would have got a different percent.

I wrote in my letter of resignation from Arik Sharon’s government [in April 2005] that Hamas would take over in Gaza [under his imminent disengagement plans]. That it would be bad for Jews, bad for Palestinians, good for Hamas. Instead of disengagement, I suggested making a transitional period, for three years of reforms, together with the Americans, maybe together with the Egyptians.

See to it that, in these years, a fully independent economy would be established, normal education, dismantling of refugee camps and building good conditions for them, and of course cooperation to fight terror.

Then, I suggested, after three or four years like this, hold elections. Those would be free elections. People would have different options and they would be protected, not afraid. And then you would have partners to negotiate peace. You would have people who, whether they hate you or not, whether they are anti-Semites or not, are elected because they are concerned about the well-being of their people.

Is any of that happening in the West Bank now with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad?

It’s not so much because of Fayyad, but because [Quartet envoy Tony] Blair finally got it and Europe got it a little. The so-called peace process is nonexistent and, I believe, never existed, because it was built from the very beginning on this idea of a strong dictator who will deliver peace to us. It was never a peace process. It was how to organize our settlement with dictators.

But, because they are dictators, they will inevitably grow more and more hated by their people.

Yet that was the idea of peace which was supported by Europe, by America and by almost all Israelis. Bibi [Netanyahu] displayed more understanding of the limits of the “peace with dictators.” But Arik was saying, Good, Natan, that you convinced Bush of something that doesn’t exist.

Your ideas [about the need for democracy] have nothing to do with the Middle East, so don’t interfere too much.

In the West Bank there are the first signs of a truly free economy. That’s good. There are no signs of improvement on the education system. There are signs of independence, of forces that are cooperating with us, on security.

These are the beginnings. If this process, which must also include education, continues…

What’s needed on education?

The official [PA] education is that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist.

There is not one Palestinian leader who is ready to go to a refugee camp and say, “Guys, we are going to have our own state. But you’re not going back to Tel Aviv. Let’s start discussing other options.”

Remember, I don’t know which meeting it was – there were so many – when Olmert gives Abu Mazen generous proposals and asks him only to recognize us as a Jewish, democratic state? And Bush is absolutely sure that Abu Mazen will now say this, because he’s getting so much. And Abu Mazen says no. Bush was surprised. Olmert was surprised. They were so sure that this generous proposal would do it.

But Abu Mazen said it would be “a betrayal of our people in the refugee camps” to recognize a Jewish, democratic state.

Of course, it’s not only a question of going to the refugee camps and saying it. You also have to start building normal lives for them. You can’t keep them in the refugee camps in order to use them as a weapon against us.

So there are the first sparks. But it’s a long process. That’s why all these declarations, that we can reach peace in one year, or half a year, or two years, mean nothing. That’s just going back to the same idea of engaging with somebody, finding somebody with whom we can sign an agreement.

The idea that Abu Mazen is fully dependent on the IDF, and the hope that somehow he’ll be so dependent, he’ll agree to sign an agreement.

Wrong, because…?

What you need is to build peace from bottom-up. And bottom-up means democratic reforms. But I was always told, “Forget about it. It’s not for the Arab governments.”

And now?

And now it’s coming from the other end. Not from the peace process at all. Here, people are coming and demanding to build from the bottom, without any connection [to the peace process]. This is a great chance.

So how now, in the Egyptian context, should the West be acting? What signals should be sent. You’re the leader of the free world, what do you do?

If I was in the Senate, I would immediately pass a law maintaining US assistance to Egypt on condition that 20% of it goes to democratic reforms.

What’s needed is real linkage.

The desire of the people has to be heard. It’s not up to us to decide whether it will be Omar Suleiman or Mohamed ElBaradei or someone else [who takes over]. Whoever it is, whoever is the leader, won’t want to depend on Iran, or even on Saudi Arabia so much. So they have to listen to the free world, and after all, Egypt is between the free world and Muslim fundamentalists.

And the entire free world has to say, “We are ready to help you, we are ready to support you, we are ready to be with you, but on condition that: first, there is no persecution for freedom of speech and for free press and so on; second, there is an independent economy; third, there is a tolerant, pluralistic education system where people can choose how they want to learn, what they want to learn; and, finally, that agreements that were signed with the neighbors about stability in the region have to be respected.

The entire free world should say that only those who accept these principles, and accept the principles of democratic change, should be permitted to participate and be empowered by the process. If the Muslim Brothers genuinely accept everything, then they can be part of it. But if, whatever they say, they continue in their mosques to speak about the war against Israel, or they declare that democracy will not determine what to do, then they cannot be a part of it.

At this moment, it is still possible for the free world to do this.

So you think there is an extraordinary opportunity now, and that America has sent at least some of the right signals?

Yes. I think there was no opportunity as long as there was a strong belief, almost a unanimous belief, among the leaders of the free world that only strong dictators in the Arab world can bring us stability, and that only strong dictators are our allies, and that this can continue more or less forever.

There was no chance.

No chance of what?

No chance of reform and also of a peace process. The moment this pact between democracies and dictators is broken, then there’s a chance for new concepts, for a new approach. It depends on us now. On the Arab side, they made their stand. The people made their stand, showing that “we’re here,” that “those who thought freedom is not for us, well, it is for us.” Now it is for the leaders of the free world to show that they really believe in this for them.

To set out the framework?

As Obama said in his inauguration speech, a fist to dictators and an open hand to those who want reform.

(Obama declared, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.)

And what if, three steps ahead, Egypt, other Arab countries, the Palestinians, amazingly enough, with correct signals and assistance from the West, do go through this process? But that it then turns out that the will of the people, in a genuine, democratic society, is to wipe out the State of Israel? That that’s what the people want?

We should never stop, not for a moment, relying on the strength of the IDF, but this is the only chance [for a true change]. For all the so-called peace process, we are more and more dependent on the IDF… on our capabilities in war. I don’t think that we have to weaken. But the only chance to create something whereby we’ll be less dependent on our military power is to give a chance to democratic reforms.

And I think it’ll succeed, because I think, in the end, the majority of Palestinians don’t want to continue living in refugee camps. They got closer to the ideas of the free world, a free economy, more education, than did many others, because of their proximity to Israel. But the fact is, they were never given the opportunity to choose. In 1993, we brought Arafat from Tunis, who said, “Now we’ll be a dictatorship.”

So Israel shouldn’t be panicking as it looks at the region now? We should be saying well done to the Arab masses for telling the West that they don’t want to live under dictatorship?

This is the moment for those Israelis who believe that peace has to be built bottom-up. They have to prepare for that chance. Israelis like me, like [Minister Moshe] “Bogie” Ya’alon. There are not many. This is a great moment. Let’s try to use it.

For those who didn’t believe this, for those who believe that all these ideas of freedom, as Arik Sharon was telling me, have nothing to do with the Middle East, this is the moment to think again. Maybe something was wrong with this idea of keeping these people forever under a control, which was always working against us, because it was the Muslim Brotherhood who were coming after it, whether in Iran, the Palestinian Authority, in Egypt. We hoped to have great peace agreements with all these dictators, but then the dictators who have signed peace agreements will be replaced by Muslim Brothers.

Maybe this is the moment to try to put our trust in freedom. After all, we’re not losing anything. The Muslim Brothers, they’ll come anyway [if things continue as they have been].

Here we have, maybe, the chance that they will not come.

Israel has to be concerned. I don’t want to dismiss all these feelings. All the recent changes have strengthened the fundamentalists…

In Lebanon, Iran, Gaza, Turkey.

We also have to be concerned because our best partners are becoming appeasers.

Elaborate, please.

Europe demands that we negotiate with Hamas. Then they demand that we accept a Lebanese government with 50% Hizbullah. Then it will be fully Hizbullah. And then US leaders can very well say, “Well, for us, engagement with the regime is more important than who is in this regime.”

So, yes, there are reasons for concern.

We are a small country. We can be destroyed in one day if we lower our guard. But, on the other hand, while we continue to be on guard, let’s be glad that what’s happening now on the Arab street is happening before the Muslim Brothers control the entire Middle East, and that could be the direction. Let’s be glad that it is happening in countries which are still very dependent on the free world. And let’s try to see whether, finally, we can find new ways for a peace process, and not only a process that depends fully on one thing – on the strength of the IDF.

So now let’s bring this conversation all the way back to the beginning. Is what’s happening now in the Middle East something like what unfolded with the collapse of the Soviet Union?

It’s not that simple. As I said, here it’s a more pure experiment in democracy. There, it wasn’t only an experiment in democracy. It was all these nations and faiths, and so the moment there was freedom, the people could go back to their nations and their faiths. It all fell apart. It fell apart very quickly. The world was astonished at how this communist empire fell apart.

Here, you have a much more pure experiment about the power of democracy. The subtitle of my book is “The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” That’s what this is.

Here, the role of the free world is that there must be real cooperation with this desire of people not to live in fear. Whoever these people are.

Even if they are anti-Semites and grew up in the traditional thinking of killing Jews. It’s not about us and them. It’s about them and their leaders.

At this moment, almost everything depends on the position the free world takes. The fact that some leaders of the free world, and some leading journalists, are coming to us and saying, “This is the time. This is the time to make concessions,” simply shows that they really don’t understand what’s going on. I mean, to whom to make concessions? The people in the streets of Egypt, or to dictators whose days are numbered? This is the moment, not to speak of concessions with Abu Mazen, but to start building bottom-up peace, and finally bring democracy to the Palestinians.

If the free world helps the people on the streets, and turns into the allies of these people instead of being the allies of the dictators, then there is a unique chance to build a new pact between the free world and the Arab world. And we, Israel, will be among the beneficiaries, simply because these people will then be dealing with their real problems.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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