Israel’s Natan Sharansky is one of the intellectual godfathers of President Bush’s new “democracy first” approach to the Palestinian question. Sharansky’s influence is hard to miss. His influence on the views of his countrymen is another matter. Twenty-nine months of suicide bombings, shellings, and machine-gun attacks aimed at civilians have decimated the ranks of Israelis who still believe a Palestinian state could ever be anything other than the same old terror-warriors, with new and more lethal powers. When I interviewed Sharansky in Jerusalem on February 12, his political party had just lost two of its four seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament, but his faith that democracy was the answer remained unshaken.
Natan Sharansky has a big Russian soul, but he carries it on a small frame, and slumps in his seat. When I sat at his soon-to-be-vacated desk in Israel’s Ministry of Housing and Construction, I had to scrunch down to be at eye-level with him. When I forgot, I would find myself looking instead into the eyes of his mentor, Andrei Sakharov, in a large photo above Sharansky’s head. The man once known as Anatoly wants it that way. He believes the principles he and his fellow Soviet freedom fighters went to prison for are universal principles — as real and right in the Middle East as they were and are in what was once the Soviet Union. He also believes that in the terror war, as in the Cold War, appeasing tyrants can never bring lasting peace — only the spread of democracy can. And he believes, too, that democracy is for everyone, that neither Arabs nor Palestinians are exceptions to the rule.
I offer up the Israeli everyman’s objection at the outset: Polls show that 80 percent of Palestinians approve of suicide bombings. Anyone they elect will be a murdering thug. “Of course,” Sharansky explodes. “It’s primitive to think democracy is about elections. It’s not. It’s about freedom. Freedom is the key.” First, he explains, you have to free people from the all-pervasive fear that is the sine qua non of all tyrannies. Give people the freedom to express themselves, to say what they really think, over time — without the fear that government goons will come and get them. That’s the start of the democratization process. Elections are at the other end. They come last, after people have experienced what it’s like to live free, because that — not elections — is what democracy is about. Once people know freedom, Sharansky argues, they vote to keep it. And because rulers in a democracy can’t ignore what majorities vote for if they want to stay in office, they have powerful incentives to respect freedom at home and to pursue peace abroad. For tyrants, the situation is quite different. Freedom is their nemesis, and to negate it they need to demonize enemies, both at home and abroad — justifications for their brutal, suffocating control.
It’s a lovely theory — majestic in its universal reach, seductive in its sunny, egalitarian assumptions about human nature and culture. And, Sharansky insists, there is powerful, real-world evidence for it. Look at Russia and all the other countries that were once slave states of the Soviet Union, all more or less free and democratic now. The transformations in Germany and Japan are even more striking. “A thousand years of Russian serfdom wasn’t ideal preparation for democracy,” Sharansky notes dryly. Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, too, were both democratized, and have remained democracies for half a century now.
He’s right, of course, but from the American point of view, there’s a major difference between the Soviet Union on the one hand, and Germany and Japan on the other. We didn’t have to occupy Russia or any part of the old Soviet Union to democratize it. In essence, we enfeebled Soviet dictators, and the people of those lands did the rest themselves. It wasn’t like that in Germany and Japan. Those societies didn’t crumble from within, under pressure. To democratize them we had to invade and conquer, settling for nothing less than unconditional surrender. Then, we tried their leaders as war criminals, and put their people under military occupation and kept them there for years — four in Germany, seven in Japan. We had to de-Nazify and de-imperialize them, to institute the rule of law ourselves, to reeducate the populace, and to remake their societies. It was certainly a success — a remarkable one — but it was a monumental undertaking, and the costs were enormous.
Surely, I asked Sharansky, you don’t think Palestinian suicide bombers and the population that worships them are like the Russians, Czechs, and Poles, able and eager to free themselves with only a little help from us? Surely you see that for these Arabs, as for the Germans and Japanese, nothing less than a full-scale, long-term military occupation with a rigorous, all-embracing reeducation program has a chance? Sharansky is no pie-in-the-sky, peace-now wimp. He doesn’t flinch or dodge. “Yes,” he said calmly, “that’s what must be done.” Incredulous, I asked, “And you think the world will stand back and let Israel do that?” “No,” he replied. “Of course not. Only America can do that.”
I disagree. Like Sharansky, I believe in America’s power to make the world a better, safer place by expanding freedom in the Middle East. I’m a strong supporter of President Bush’s plan to liberate Iraq — to end the Baathist regime and set it on the road to democracy. I think Iraq is ripe for it. Europe may be blind, but most Iraqis know that Saddam Hussein and his thugs are responsible for their miseries — not America or Israel — and they are eager to be liberated. If they can work out tribal and religious differences peacefully, sharing power in a workable federation, a relatively short occupation might suffice. I think Iran — struggling hard to dethrone her tyrannical mullahs — is riper still and can succeed, with a little help from us. I think President Bush thinks so too. I think he sees Iran as the eastern end of a great new arc of freedom, stretching across the whole northern half of the region, from Iran through Turkey. I think he intends to create that new reality — a reality Middle Eastern despots in the south will have to compete with, one their subjects will know about and envy. It’s a vision that is worthy of this great nation, and achievable at a cost we can afford.
But it’s unrealistic, I think, to expect anything like democracy in the southern half of the Middle East any time soon — and a dangerous illusion to expect a Palestinian democracy ever. Look, first, at Egypt, the population giant of the south. Most Egyptians still see Nasser — a megalomaniacal thug, much like Saddam Hussein — as a hero. Most still blame the same scapegoats Nasser blamed for Egypt’s poverty, backwardness, and oppression: America and Israel. Egypt’s current dictator, Hosni Mubarak, pretends to be our ally, but his government-controlled media is still pumping out the same old lies and excuses, still demonizing us, still pretending that Egypt’s half-century of stagnation is our fault, still goading his people to channel their blind rage at us and at Israel. And what is true for Egypt is true for other southern Arab states as well.
We can’t occupy them all, of course. Still, the situation isn’t hopeless, because most Arab states have one important positive thing in common with Germany and Japan. In each case, when you strip away the misdirected rage, the false claims that external enemies are responsible for their failures, there is still something left — something beyond hatred and lies on which to build a non-predatory national identity. There was a Germany before Nazism — a country and people with its own unique language and culture, a culture that produced Bach and Goethe, as well as Hitler. There was an Egypt, too, long before Nasser and Mubarak — an Egypt with great periods in its past, as well as appalling ones, and this is true of most other nations of the Middle East. True, too, of many ancient peoples in the region who have been denied nationhood for centuries — the Kurds, for example, and the Berbers.
It’s not true of “Palestinians.” They have no past to hearken back to. No past glories, no nation or people, no unique language or history or culture. And no wonder: Until the 1960s, they didn’t exist. They are as much a product of the Sixties as slogans like “Make love, not war” or inventions like the kindly, democratic Uncle “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh.” Before the Sixties — when Arabs from what is now Jordan, Egypt, and Syria moved west of the Jordan River to take advantage of new economic opportunities opened up by the returning Jews — they took their nationality from their countries of origin, or from whichever Arab country claimed sovereignty over the land at the time. They were mostly Jordanians, but all three Arab states claimed the land, and each ruled it, or parts of it, at different times. Intra-Arab rivalries notwithstanding, all Arab nations — the whole Arab world, 200 million strong — agreed from the start that the Jews would never get to keep any part of ancient Israel, that everything from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea was Arab land, and that Arabs would take back every inch of it. This played well to Arab audiences, but it made for ineffective public relations with the outside world. “Help 200 million Arabs drive a handful of Jews into the sea” was not a winning slogan in most parts of the world. And as the Israeli handful defeated the attacking Arab millions in war after war, it became a liability the united Arab rejectionist front could no longer afford.
Unable to win militarily, they resolved to attack diplomatically instead, with a relentless new propaganda war. Job One was to obscure the fact that the same old Arab Goliath was still bent on destroying the Israeli David. To do that, it needed an Arab rejectionist front in miniature — a few million dedicated Arab warriors to present a saleable image to the world, an ersatz victim image to compete with the all-too-real victim image of the Jews. And so they invented a new Arab people, “the Palestinians,” whose entire raison d’etre is hatred of the Jews, based on a false claim that “their” land has been stolen from them by greedy, foreign Jewish oppressors. This new national identity gave the re-named Arabs an instant claim to a separate new state of their own, and it gave every Arab dictator a cruel new cause to champion — a new and more effective way of redirecting the popular rage at real oppression at home into rage against manufactured oppression abroad. To give that rage a permanent base, all the Arab states together made pariahs of the so-called Palestinians — popular pariahs, but pariahs nonetheless. The Palestinians were unwelcome in every Arab state but Jordan, where they form the majority — and even there, the door is shut to further immigration. Consider: A million Jews who had lived in the Middle East since time immemorial were forced out of Arab lands and into Israel, but the Arabs in Israel were locked in, goaded with a constant stream of propaganda, supplied with clandestine weapons, and given large sums of money for murdering Jews.
These Arabs will never be at peace, will never know the blessings of democracy so long as they are encouraged to cling to a false and hateful identity as “Palestinians.” They are not a separate people; they are part of the Arab nation and, with few exceptions, they need to be absorbed back into it. Until they are, there will never be peace in Israel or real and lasting progress toward democracy in the southern Arab states. The biggest mistake America can make would be to keep this evil identity alive by giving it a U.S.-sponsored mini-state. The ancient land of Israel has already been divided between Arabs and Jews, into Jordan and Israel. It cannot be divided again to create another viable state.
— Freelance writer Barbara Lerner conducted a series of interviews with Israeli politicians, journalists, religious figures, and ordinary citizens between January 27 and February 17, 2003.