About 15 years ago, a prominent Israeli dealing with world affairs told then-MK Natan Sharansky about a “future leader of the Arab world” who “thinks exactly” like Sharansky — a modern and moderate young man who “believes in democracy” in the Middle East. The Israeli offered to fly Sharansky to Paris to meet this future leader — one Bashar Assad, then the son of and today (still) the president of Syria — hoping the two would advance bilateral relations.
Before agreeing to fly to Paris, Sharansky asked if Bashar was going to be democratically elected. “No, of course not. His father [Hafez Assad] is going to appoint him,” the interlocutor responded. Sharansky politely declined. Obviously, he could not have known that this ostensible would-be believer in democracy would be massacring his own people a decade-and-a-half later for daring to challenge his rule. But for Sharansky, a leader who was not elected, or seeking to be elected by his people, it was not worth his time.
Arguably the world’s most famous former Prisoner of Zion, who spent years in a Soviet prison fighting for his right to immigrate to Israel, Sharansky’s belief in democracy is unshakable. While a political hawk, he is one of the few public figures in Israel who fully embraced the Arab Spring, arguing that it is in everybody’s interest — emphatically including Israel’s — that the people of the Arab world choose their leaders themselves and move toward free, democratic societies.
Many Israeli politicians, especially from the right wing, bemoaned last year’s Tahrir Square demonstrations and subsequent fall of president Hosni Mubarak, which paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to win Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections this year. But Sharansky, 64, insists that Mubarak’s dictatorial regime should have ended much earlier.
“It’s a pity that it didn’t happen 20 years ago,” said Sharansky, who today heads the Jewish Agency for Israel. “It had to happen.”
Having presaged the fall of the Soviet Union when he crossed the Iron Curtain and came to Israel 26 years ago, Sharansky believes that all dictatorships are doomed to fall sooner or later. “Every dictatorship, however good it is for the West, will be overthrown one day,” he said.
His 2004 “The Case for Democracy” is one of former US president George W. Bush’s favorite texts — it served as his foreign policy guide — but Sharansky differed from Bush on one crucial point. “Bush was saying [in 2007], if it’s not Mubarak, it will be the Muslim Brotherhood and we don’t want the Muslim Brotherhood,” Sharansky recalled in a recent interview in his Jerusalem office.
“That is the big mistake of the West: If the only options are either Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, you will get the Muslim Brotherhood. If the only options are Yasser Arafat or Hamas, the answer is Hamas. If you understand that [autocratic regimes will not last] forever, that they have to fall, then it has to be said: the sooner it will happen, the better.”
‘That is the big mistake of the West — if the only options are either Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, you will get the Muslim Brotherhood’
Opponents of the Arab Spring initially believed that the despots of the Middle East could defy it, and go on as if nothing happened. But it would have been smarter to accept from the beginning that the status quo could not continue, he argues. “The later they will fall the more the people [in the Arab world] will hate you, and the smaller the opportunity for any liberal democracy to work,” Sharansky said.
The free world often forgets that dictators like Mubarak and Assad were subjugating their people; the more the West supports such regimes, the more it will be hated by the people once the regimes, inevitably, fall apart, he added.
“The main message of the Arab Spring, even with all the other negative things which happened afterwards, was: now the people will be deciding who will be their leaders. That is a great opportunity. Why? Because whoever is in power, they depend on the will of the people. That means that whoever is in power will have to deal with the problems of these people. Mubarak and Assad built their power on fear and physical control. The moment we have these new leaders who are dependent on the anger — but also on the satisfaction — of the street, they have to deal with these problems.”
The new Egypt, for example, has bigger and more urgent problems than Israel, Sharansky reasons. “They [Egypt’s leaders] can speak as much as they want about their hatred for Israel or Zionism or Jews or whatever, their main problem is what to do with the economy that is falling apart, with housing which is not existing and with how to feed tens of millions of people without jobs,” Sharansky said.
The free world should support the budding democratization of the Middle East, but any aid should be contingent on the development of a free civil society, he suggested.
“It will not happen in one day, but more and more governments at this moment depend on the will of their people, and will have to cooperate with the free world in trying to solve their problems through helping to build institutions of civil society,” he said.
Sharansky, a former interior minister and deputy prime minister, will defend democracy no matter the outcome, regardless of whether moderates or extremists win at the ballot box. In February 2011, before the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt, he had hailed the Arab Spring as “the moment to try to put our trust in freedom.”
In a newspaper interview at the time, he said that the free world was lucky 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… So it is good that this is all happening now in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood is not strong enough.” The West’s support for dictatorships that promised stability but didn’t care for the people has been helping the Muslim Brotherhood gain steam, Sharansky suggested.
Roughly 18 months later, the Muslim Brotherhood is ruling Egypt, and in Jordan it recently started organizing mass demonstrations against the king, leading some observers to predict a Tahrir-style revolution there too. Yet Sharansky is adamant that democracy is, and remains, the only way forward.
‘If you believe that for Egyptian people it is more important to kill Jews than not to die from hunger, then you cannot explain why this revolution happened’
“That’s the problem with the free world: we’re not learning anything. At each stage in history, we do the same. We’re looking for which dictator in this awful chaos will be more sympathetic toward us,” he said. “The free world has to understand: We cannot decide for these people to be a democracy or not. We cannot guarantee the survival of the dictators. We cannot guarantee the creation of free society.” Therefore, Sharansky insists that the West support Egypt’s young democracy — which needs the West’s help to survive — but should tie all aid to Egypt to the strengthening of a free society there and the acceptance of peaceful coexistence with Israel.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, while certainly no Zionist, has publicly indicated his commitment to honor the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. He sent a friendly letter to his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres (though he later denied sending it) and appointed a new ambassador to Tel Aviv, after the post had been vacant for months. Morsi understands, it seems, that at least for now his country has other worries than picking a fight with Israel.
“The more the government depends on its own people, the less dangerous it is to us,” Sharansky posited. “Because the government depends on its own people, it has to deliver goods to the people. If you believe that for the Egyptian people it is more important to kill Jews than not to die from hunger, then you cannot explain why this revolution happened. Because when the people went on the street there was not a word about killing Jews or hating Israel. Well, there was sometimes ‘Mubarak is an agent of Israel,’ but that’s about it. It was all about, ‘We want to have a normal life, we don’t want to live in fear, we want to have jobs’ — that was their message.”
‘Returning the Golan? Only if Syria becomes democratic’
In 2000, prime minister Ehud Barak believed he could reach a peace agreement with Syria, in exchange for the Golan Heights. Before joining the coalition, Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah party, which then had six Knesset seats, made sure of one thing:
“We put a condition on the coalition agreement: Our vote on the Golan will be linked to the democratization of the regime in Syria,” Sharansky recalled, adding that politicians from the left and the right were ridiculing the party. If you want to keep the Golan, that’s one thing, but what does the Golan have to with this, he was asked.
“But we insisted,” Sharansky said with a smile. The coalition agreement he and Barak eventually signed is “one of the few documents in Israel’s political history” linking Israeli territorial concessions with regime change in an Arab country, he noted.
“Imagine for a moment that we did give back practically the entire Golan to that regime,” he said. “The fate of the regime would be the same, because people won’t live better [with the Golan]. Only today, [Assad] would be bombarding [his people] near the Kinneret, and chemical weapons would be hidden 10 meters from our borders. That’s what [concessions] have to with regime change.”
Hearing Sharansky — a member of the rightist Likud party — making the case for democracy in the Middle East, one might assume he’d be unhappy about the way the current government has been dealing with the recent developments in the Arab world. Prime Minister and Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the Arab Spring, saying his initial concern that the upheavals would turn into an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave” all came true.
In fact, Sharansky compliments the prime minister on his handling of the situation. “Netanyahu is right in formulating the conditions which are absolutely unacceptable from our point of view and should not be acceptable for the free world if they want to cooperate with this regime,” Sharansky said, speaking of Egypt. While he is in favor of the free world working together with Morsi, the West should clearly state that fighting terror in Sinai and keeping the peace agreements with Israel are the very basic conditions that Cairo has to fulfill for any kind of support and cooperation.
“We don’t believe in the New Testament’s teachings that if you’re slapped in the face you should turn the other cheek,” Sharansky said. “We have to think about our dignity, about our interests and power. We don’t have to die of happiness now that the Muslim Brothers are there. We have to formulate, in a very cool way, the minimal threshold of what we believe should be included in the relations with this government.”
Jerusalem is not obligated to declare its passionate love for the Muslim Brotherhood, Sharansky allows, but it should also not make the error of wishing back Mubarak. “I don’t believe in a new Middle East based on dictators.”
Eternal Jew hatred, even in a new Middle East
Even a democratic Middle East will not be free of Jew hatred, not even 20 years from now, Sharansky acknowledges. But that’s not for us to worry about, he argues.
“As someone who today is dealing a lot with anti-Semitism [as head of the Jewish Agency], we know that there is anti-Semitism in places where there are no Jews at all. So I don’t think that suddenly these [countries affected by the Arab Spring] will be areas without anti-Semitism. But most people firstly expect their government to deliver a good quality of life, more than anything else. “So their hatred of Jews will be an addition to the heart of their lives, which is how to build a good quality of life.”
When leaders of a country need to worry about being reelected, he believes, their hatred of Jews becomes secondary. “Of course anti-Semitism is unfortunate — the brainwashing of a thousand years has worked. And they do hate us. But they’ll have a different set of interests, which in many ways will be [in line with] our interests.”