Natan Sharansky is among the world's most consistent advocates of democratization as a basis for foreign policy. Born in Ukraine in 1948, he received a degree in mathematics from Moscow's Physical Technical Institute. A brilliant mathematician and chess master, he entered the limelight as a spokesman for the movement to emancipate Soviet Jewry. Arrested by the Soviet authorities in 1977 for his refusenik activities, he was sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment. President Ronald Reagan interceded and, in 1986, won Sharansky's release as part of an East-West prisoner exchange. In his 1988 autobiography Fear No Evil, he discussed both his emotional resistance to surrender in the face of KGB interrogation and also his quest to explore his Jewish roots.
Freed from Soviet imprisonment, Sharansky received a hero's welcome in Israel. Dedicating himself as an activist for free Soviet emigration, he became increasingly active among Israel's Russian immigrant population. In 1995, he founded Yisrael B'Aliyah in order to represent this important demographic. He subsequently served in a number of positions, including minister of industry and trade, minister of housing and construction and, most recently, as deputy prime minister. He is currently minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs in the cabinet of Ariel Sharon. His new book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, was published in November 2004. On November 11, President George W. Bush invited Sharansky to the Oval Office for an hour-long discussion of the book. Sam Spector, research analyst at the Long-Term Strategy Project, interviewed him in Jerusalem by telephone on November 24, 2004.
Democracy and Freedom
Middle East Quarterly: At the Republican National Convention, on September 2, 2004, President Bush said "freedom is on the march" in the Middle East. Do you agree?
Natan Sharansky: Freedom definitely has a much better chance to succeed today than some years or even some months ago. For freedom to succeed, not only must people throughout the Middle East desire freedom, but there needs to be solidarity from the outer world and, also, a readiness to link foreign policy to human rights and support for dissent.
MEQ: What can the United States do to support dissidents in the Middle East and elsewhere?
Sharansky: Washington should replicate the success of its policy toward the Soviet Union. The first nail in the coffin of the Soviet dictatorship was the Jackson-Vanek amendment [of 1973], which linked trade to emigration rights. The Helsinki agreement [of 1975] further enshrined human rights in international relations. In the 1980s, President Reagan stood firm on human rights, emboldening myself and other dissidents in our fight against dictatorship. Washington should adopt similar policies to aid dissidents in Arab countries.
MEQ: Pundits and European governments criticized President Bush for the crudeness of his "Axis of Evil" reference. How important is rhetoric?
Sharansky: The world is full of doublethink. What it most lacks is moral clarity. It is extremely important to call a spade a spade. It is necessary to understand the nature of the war that we are in the midst of. The battle is not between Israel and the Palestinians or between the United States and Iraq. Rather, the current fight pits the world of freedom against the world of terror. I have told President Bush that the two greatest speeches of my lifetime were Ronald Reagan's speech casting the Soviet Union as an evil empire and the president's own speech on June 24, 2002, when he said that Palestinians deserve to live in freedom and that only with freedom would the Middle East enjoy security.
MEQ: Do you believe that your conversations and writings have influenced Bush?
Sharansky: The reason for my meeting with the president was because he was reading my book, and he wanted to discuss it. There is no doubt that the president's statements at his press conference [with British prime minister Tony Blair] were similar to my ideas. I was very happy to hear the president say that freedom is not something that was given to America but rather it is a gift from God to all mankind. I feel very strongly that peace will only come after freedom and democracy. These are the ideas for which I have been fighting all my life, and these are the ideas to which I believe the president is going to devote the next four years.
MEQ: How would you characterize Bush's approach to the challenges facing the free world?
Sharansky: I told the President, "You don't look like a politician. You look like a real dissident, because politicians always look at what polls say, but you believe in democracy and freedom … Even when your colleagues in Europe tell you that democracy is impossible, you go ahead with it. You are a real dissident."
MEQ: Do you see parallels between events today and your own experience as a political dissident in the 1970s and 1980s?
Sharansky: I have a story in my book about how we dissidents celebrated the day when President Reagan called the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire." We saw the Soviet Union as a rotten, weak society, liable to fall apart quickly, if only the West stopped supporting it. The first step in the Soviet Union's demise would be the West's enunciation of the true nature of the [Soviet] state. When Ronald Reagan, the leader of the free world, called a spade a spade and defined the roots of the struggle, the Soviet Union was doomed. And that's what happened. The same thing applies today. We are speaking about a struggle between the world in which human life is the highest priority and those societies that treat human life with disdain and hold their citizens hostage in an attempt to blackmail civilization.
MEQ: Why has dictatorship flourished for so long in the Middle East?
Sharansky: For too long the free world has been willing to appease dictatorships. The United States is no longer willing to accept a policy of appeasement [toward Middle Eastern dictators]. [Washington's] willingness to coddle dictators has been the main obstacle to dissent in the Arab world.
MEQ: Can't strongmen bring stability?
Sharansky: The more resolute the free world is in not appeasing dictators, the less often it will have to use military power. If you look at the history of struggle between democracies and dictatorships, you will see that outright war is almost always preceded by a period of appeasement. This was the case with both Hitler and Stalin. In the Middle East, Palestinian violence and terror followed a period of appeasement. In Iraq, too, a decade of appeasement emboldened Saddam Hussein and contributed to war. We would not have had this problem in Iraq if the free world had not once thought that Saddam Hussein was good for stability. Had the United States and the West linked their foreign policies to basic human rights, not one shot would need to have been fired in Iraq.
MEQ: Where might Washington better link its policies to human rights?
Sharansky: Many places. Take Egypt, for example. The United States sometimes expresses sympathy for Egyptian dissidents, but Washington's word would mean more if it drew linkages between dissident rights and the $2 billion in foreign aid it gives Egypt each year. Likewise, in the case of the Palestinian Authority, American support for Palestinian dissidents hasn't gone much past rhetoric.
MEQ: Do you see progress for democracy in the Middle East?
Sharansky: There is progress today in the Middle East because the most dangerous regime, that of Saddam Hussein, has been removed. Saddam Hussein's Iraq gave legitimacy to terrorist groups across the Middle East. Saddam's was a regime that used human life to break the will of the free world. That the West allowed Saddam's regime to continue to hold his people hostage for so many years, encouraged dictators and terrorists worldwide, and discouraged potential dissidents within Iraqi society. But today the situation has changed. The death of [Yasir] Arafat also creates new possibilities.
The Palestinians after Arafat
MEQ: How strong is the will for political change among the Palestinians?
Sharansky: Whenever people are given an opportunity not to live in constant fear, not to live a life of doublethink, they choose freedom. If given the opportunity, the Palestinians can progress toward democracy. They have a strong middle class. They have special business opportunities in the free world. Palestinians are adroit observers of Israel and understand the functioning of democracy. The Palestinian diaspora is well educated. All of these factors provide hope for a speedier transition. There is no doubt that the change of leadership resulting from Arafat's passing creates opportunities. Whether Palestinians seize these opportunities is another question.
MEQ: In The Case for Democracy you write that "Palestinians, like every people, are capable of building a free society." Does Israel have any role or responsibility to help create the conditions for a free Palestinian society?
Sharansky: Israel has a special interest in Palestinian democracy because only with democratic development among Palestinians and in the Arab world will Israel enjoy peace and stability. We can complain as much as we want about the lack of freedom and the lack of democracy among the Palestinians and other neighbors, but we should never forget our role. Israel and other nations in the free world tried to turn a Palestinian dictatorship into a partner. Many Israeli and American policymakers thought that a Palestinian dictatorship would bring stability. We were not ready to support any form of dissent in the Arab world and among the Palestinians because we believed it would weaken the Palestinian Authority and any chance for peace. Israel, the United States, and other free nations need to realize that they can play a very positive role, but that their choices can also be harmful for democracy.
MEQ: You also wrote that free elections can only take place in an atmosphere devoid of fear and only after the basic institutions that protect a free society—such as a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, and political parties—are firmly in place. Can the Palestinian Authority elections meet these criteria?
Sharansky: We should have no illusions that the elections that will take place in January  will have anything to do with democracy. Elections that are not free, that are not held in a free society have nothing to do with democracy.
MEQ: Are Palestinian elections at all worthwhile?
Sharansky: Elections are worthwhile, but casting votes in and of itself is not enough. Democracy can only start when the new leadership selected in these elections embraces reform. A lot depends on our policy. If we embrace a leadership that embraces reform, or if we refuse to give any legitimacy or support to a leadership that refuses to bring democracy and reform, then there is a serious chance for success. In the upcoming Palestinian election, different faction heads will decide the candidates in advance. Voters will not really have the freedom to express their opinions. The leadership selection has nothing to do with democracy, but it is important that this selection take place as soon as possible.
MEQ: What should happen then?
Sharansky: We should not pay too much attention to who will be the next Palestinian leader, but we should pay attention to what we demand of this leader. The first steps towards democracy will be after elections and not before.
MEQ: Is your opposition to the Gaza disengagement plan a matter of principle, or are you concerned over its practical implementation?
Sharansky: Questions of principle and practical matters are always connected for me. I was against the disengagement plan not because I believed we should stay in Gaza but because one-sided concessions could transform Gaza into a beachhead for a terrorist state. If a Palestinian democracy developed, then a Palestinian state would not be dangerous. As I said many years ago, it is very important that the depth of our concessions match the depth of democracy on the other side. If disengagement were linked to democratic reforms, I would be all for this plan. But I object to any plan that leaves territory for terror.
 New York: Random House, 1988.
 New York: PublicAffairs, 2004.
 The Washington Post, Nov. 23, 2004.
 White House news release, Sept. 2, 2004.
 State of the Union address, Jan. 29, 2002.
 "President Bush Calls for New Palestinian Leadership," White House news release, June 24, 2002.
 White House news release, Nov. 12, 2004.
 Sharansky, The Case for Democracy, p. xxv.