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On Peace, Freedom, and Democracy

Editors' Introduction: Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, has served in Israel's Knesset and as a minister in the cabinets of four Israeli governments. Born in the Soviet Union, where he was a founding member of the dissident Helsinki Monitoring Group, he became active in the underground Zionist movement until arrested, tried, and sentenced in 1978 to thirteen years in a Siberian labor camp. An international campaign resulted in his release after nine years of imprisonment. A writer and intellectual, Sharansky is the author of three books: the memoir Fear No Evil, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, and Defending Identity. He is a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

The following personal statements reflect Sharansky's thinking about the necessary conditions for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Each of the two documents—the  first published  after the September 1993 signing of the Oslo accords, the second written on the eve of Israel's 2005 disengagement from Gaza in 2005responds to an effort at achieving peace between the parties in the complete absence of such necessary conditions. Each foresees the almost certain failure of the initiative being entered upon, and each proposes a different way forward.

We reproduce the statements here in light of the subsequent history of those two experimentsboth of them disastrous, for Israelis and Palestinians alikeand with an eye to the current diplomatic push to forge, or impose, still another arrangement on the same terms.


"The Kind of Neighbors We Need," Jerusalem Report, October 21, 1993

"It won't be our problem," said Shimon Peres with a smile, responding to a reporter's question about whether or not there will be terror in the territories in the wake of the historic peace agreement with Yasir Arafat [signed on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993]. "The PLO will handle it far better than we ever could."

The foreign minister didn't have to explain what his smile meant. But for those who didn't see through the diplomatic veils, [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin expressed the same thought with a soldier's directness and a touch of envy: "When the Palestinians in Gaza are responsible for taking care of their own internal problems, they'll handle them without a Supreme Court, without [the Israeli human-rights organization] b'Tzelem, and without all kinds of bleeding-heart liberals."

It seems that this is one point that Left and Right can agree on. And it's clear why: Israel has for years struggled with the challenge of fighting terrorism while keeping to the norms of its own democratic society. In 1984, when two captured terrorists were killed after being captured at the scene of a murderous bus hijacking they had just perpetrated, there was a major national scandal. After years of investigations, top officials of the Shin Bet security services were removed. Voices were raised, protesting that the process posed a serious obstacle to those fighting terrorism, but it was clear that it was no less important to ensure the survival of the nation's democracy to ensure that everyone is subject to the rule of law.

The soldiers fighting the Palestinian intifada became a CNN symbol of Israeli ruthlessness and injustice; in fact, each soldier was probably operating under more restrictions than are imposed in any army in the world. On the other hand, Palestinian terrorist groups have been taking care of their Arab rivals in the simplest, most "effective" way: During the past five years, over 750 "collaborators" have been gruesomely killed by Palestinians without a shadow of a trial in the territories.

In the same breath as the expressions of confidence regarding the problem-solving talents of the Palestinians, Shimon Peres and his colleagues say that the current peace agreements will bring us a democratic Palestinian society, living side by side with a democratic Jewish society, cooperating economically and culturally, bringing prosperity to all.

But you can't have it both ways. It's certainly possible to use Arafat to do the dirty work we can't do and get rid of rejectionist and fundamentalist terrorist elements. But the society which will emerge as a result will have nothing in common with the rosy picture of a Switzerland in the Middle East. Arafat, after all, isn't a mercenary who will come and then go; the society which will emerge from fighting "without a Supreme Court, b'Tzelem, and bleeding-heart liberals" will inevitably be based on fear, and on unlimited totalitarian authority.

Liberation movements always leave a legacy, whether it is the democracy of India and Israel, or the dictatorship of [Saddam Hussein's] Iraq and most of the other former colonial countries.

And totalitarian regimes cannot maintain stability without an enemy. Once they finish off their internal rivals they inevitably look for outside opponents. Having totalitarian enemies on our borders means closed borders and an end to the dreams of open, free relations. It also potentially means a Jordan swallowed by the Palestinians and an unbroken swath of terror stretching east to Baghdad and beyond, the worst nightmare of the Israeli right wing.

My aim is not to scare Israelis with worst-case scenarios. Rather, my intention is that if we really want to give the rosy picture of peace a chance, we must try to ensure the building of real democratic institutions in the fledgling Palestinian society, no matter how tempting a "solution" without [such institutions] may be. Even if we are counting on the Palestinian leaders to destroy our worst enemies, we must prefer that they are limited in their actions by their own court system, free press, and watchdog organizations.

The usual argument against this runs along the lines of "you cannot impose democracy on a people with a different system of values"in this case, Islam. But to accept this line of thought, which may be justifiable in light of the way nearly two dozen Arab states are currently ruled, is to accept that Switzerland in the Middle East is wishful thinking and that the signing of the agreement based on such a vision was a dangerous gamble.

Yet the thesis that democracy cannot be imposed on the Arabs has never really been tested. Even in the wake of the Gulf War, when Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Arab states were totally dependent on the West, no effort was made to condition military help on democratization.

Palestinian autonomy can become a unique test case for the determined introduction of democracy in the Arab world. Indeed, those who are responsible for the agreement and believe most in the potential of a peace here have the most at stake in exporting democracy to the emerging Palestinian society.

In the coming transitional period, Palestinians will be totally dependent on the West and Israel, politically and economically. Making political concessions and generous financial donations without "interfering in domestic affairs" almost dooms the process. On the other hand, rigidly linking the concessions and assistance to human-rights policy nurtures the chance for real peace.



Letter of Resignation to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, May 2, 2005

May 2, 2005

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Office of the Prime Minister



Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

I am writing to inform you of my decision to resign as Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Jerusalem.

As you know, I have opposed the disengagement plan from the beginning on the grounds that I believe any concessions in the peace process must be linked to democratic reforms within Palestinian society. Not only does the disengagement plan ignore such reforms, it will in fact weaken the prospects for building a free Palestinian society and at the same time strengthen the forces of terror.

Will our departure from Gaza encourage building a society where freedom of speech is protected, where independent courts protect individual rights, and where free markets enable Palestinians to build an independent economic life beyond government control? Will our departure from Gaza end incitement in the Palestinian media or hate-filled indoctrination in Palestinian schools? Will our departure from Gaza result in the dismantling of terror groups or the dismantling of the refugee camps in which four generations of Palestinians have lived in miserable conditions?

Clearly, the answer to all these questions is no.

The guiding principle behind the disengagement plan is based on the illusion that by leaving Gaza we will leave the problems of Gaza behind us. As the familiar mantra goes, "we will be here, and they will be there." Once again, we are repeating the mistakes of the past by not understanding that the key to building a stable and lasting peace with our Palestinian neighbors lies in encouraging and supporting their efforts to build a democratic society. Obviously, these changes surely will take time, but Israel is not even linking its departure from Gaza upon the initiation of the first steps in this direction.

In my view, the disengagement plan is a tragic mistake that will exacerbate the conflict with the Palestinians, increase terrorism, and dim the prospects of forging a genuine peace. Yet what turns this tragic mistake into a missed opportunity of historic proportions is the fact that as a result of changes in the Palestinian leadership and the firm conviction of the leader of the free world that democracy is essential to stability and peacea conviction that is guiding America's actions in other places around the worldan unprecedented window of opportunity has opened. Recent events across the globe, whether in former Soviet republics like Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan, or in Arab states like Lebanon and Egypt, prove again and again the ability of democratic forces to induce dramatic change. How absurd that Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, still refuses to believe in the power of freedom to transform our world.

Alongside my concerns about the dangers entailed in a unilateral disengagement from Gaza, I am even more concerned about how the government's approach to disengagement is dividing Israeli society. We are heading toward a terrible rift in the nation and to my great chagrin I feel that the government is making no serious effort to prevent it.

As Minister I share collective responsibility for every government decision. Now when the disengagement plan is in the beginning of its implementation stages and all government institutions are exclusively focused on this process, I no longer feel that I can faithfully serve in a government whose central policyindeed, whose sole raison d'êtrehas become one to which I am so adamantly opposed.

I would like to thank you for our productive cooperation over the last four years. In particular, your sensitivity toward issues of concern to the Jewish people and the strong backing you gave to my efforts to combat anti-Semitism and to strengthen Israel's connection with the Diaspora made it possible for the State of Israel to forge the many successes which we achieved together in these areas.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for the central role you played in integrating the Yisrael B'aliya party into the Likud, a historic step of great national importance.

As in the past, I will continue my lifelong efforts to contribute to the unity and strength of the Jewish people both in Israel and in the Diaspora. I will also continue to advocate and promote the idea that freedom and democracy are essential to peace and security.


Natan Sharansky



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