Sharansky’s guide to the region’s human rights dilemmas

Former Soviet dissident weighs in on the moralities of migrant refugee demands, putting settlers and Israeli Arabs in ‘Palestine,’ and Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

I thought Natan Sharansky — the former Soviet dissident and icon of the Soviet Jewish emigration movement, briefly Israeli journalist, later party leader and government minister, and today Jewish Agency chairman — might have some insights into the innumerable human rights dilemmas facing Israel and this stormy region. And so it proved, in an interview Wednesday at Sharansky’s office in the Jewish Agency building.

We talked about Israel’s obligations regarding African asylum-seekers (limited), the government’s obligations to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Arab citizens in the Galilee triangle (profound, in both cases), President Barack Obama’s obligations regarding the ayatollah-dominated people of Iran (dismally unfulfilled), and a great deal more besides. (He preferred not to discuss the soon-to-be-vacant spot of state president.)

Sharansky is a sharp, insightful and original thinker, whose book “The Case for Democracy” was by the former president’s acknowledgment something of a handbook for George W. Bush when in office, though 42 never quite got his head around Sharansky’s critical contention that elections do not, in and of themselves, spell democracy. This was an argument notably underlined in Egypt of late, where the relatively freely elected president Mohammed Morsi proceeded, upon taking office, to set about ensuring there would be no further relatively free elections, before he in turn was ousted.

So nimble are Sharansky’s thought processes, indeed, that his brain works too quickly for his mouth (at least when he’s speaking English; maybe he can keep up with himself in Russian), with the result that he sometimes neglects to finish actually voicing the culminating thought in a sentence because he’s already off on the next one. This can leave the interviewer with something of a challenge when writing up the conversation.

1. On African asylum-seekers in Israel

I put it to Sharansky that we, the Jews, who know a thing or two about being persecuted, surely have an obligation to open our arms wide in welcome to the persecuted masses of Africa. Then again, we’re only a small country, and can’t be expected to shoulder the burden of absorbing vast numbers of asylum-seekers. So where and how to draw the line?

He answered, first, by noting that democratic liberal states have an obligation to treat all their citizens equally, but they also have the right to decide who gets to be a citizen. “When the Iron Curtain fell,” for instance, “Germany came immediately to all the people of the Former Soviet Union and said that everyone of German or Jewish origin can get [German] citizenship. There were 106 nationalities in the former Soviet Union, but nobody even thought this [German approach] was discriminatory.” By the same token, though some might seek to claim that Israel’s Law of Return is discriminatory, in offering automatic citizenship to those with at least one Jewish grandparent, the fact is, said Sharansky, that any and every international lawyer will dismiss the contention. The requirement for “equality of people in democratic countries doesn’t mean that every person in the world has the same rights in this country. Only the citizens of this country… Equality begins with citizenship.” (We’ll come back to this point when discussing Israeli Arabs and the Avigdor Liberman-championed policy of redrawing the borders to render them Palestinians.)

As for the 50,000 or 60,000 African migrants who crossed into Israel and are now organizing to demand refugee status, Sharansky said that “we, as a humane, democratic, liberal society have sympathies to those who need help. On the other hand, taking responsibility for the state means nobody should expect, and we should not expect from ourselves, to give them all the same rights” as full citizens.

Sharansky visits Ethiopian immigrants at the Jewish Agency's IBIM absorption center, near the southern Israeli town of Sderot (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Sharansky visits Ethiopian immigrants at the Jewish Agency’s IBIM absorption center, near the southern Israeli town of Sderot (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Israel, Sharansky elaborated, is in “a unique situation” as the only Western democracy accessible from Africa over land. But “the question about how to help people who are miserable in Africa is a global question. We, as a border country, are the first refuge that they reach when they are not killed on the way. We have to treat them humanely, but we cannot automatically give everybody the status of a refugee and treat them as political refugees, because really there could then be millions of these.”

About four years ago, soon after he came to the Jewish Agency, Sharansky suggested that Israel build a caravan town in the western Negev for at least some of the thousands of migrants who had crossed into Israel, ensure it was provided with the necessary services, and invite its residents to work on nearby kibbutzim. He thought it might be possible to raise money from world Jewry and other sources to fund the initiative. It could also be coordinated with the relevant international organizations, he thought, and become a focus for the international community in grappling with the question of who should be recognized as political refugees and how the world could share the burden of providing for them. The idea was that, “say, Italy and other European countries, Australia, some other countries, would take some responsibility; we’d take some responsibility; it’s clear that small Israel cannot do it all.

We can tell ourselves a thousand times it’s very unfair that [the African migrants] are here. But we can’t just throw them away

“But while I started checking into this, people in the government were not really happy about the idea that we’d start creating the conditions whereby more people from Africa would want to come,” Sharansky went on. The concern was that “hundreds of thousands” more migrants would follow. And then there were those who contended that the idea would backfire spectacularly for Israel — that if Israel created “a town for blacks” it would be accused of racism. So the proposal died, even though, Sharansky noted, thousands of Russian immigrants had been housed in caravan towns in Beersheba when they first came in 1990-1991, and even though the conditions would have been “much better” for the migrants “than they have now in south Tel Aviv. It could have been a place where you could bring international forces and have a serious discussion about what you’re doing, and the frictions within [Israeli] society would be much lower.” (He also noted that in Nitzana, in the Western Negev, the Jewish Agency runs a small special school for children from Sudan and Eritrea, among its range of programs there. “They are being given the full rights of Israeli citizens. At least we feel we are doing something.”)

The bottom line, said Sharansky, is that “there is no way” to accept the migrants’ demand that all of them be automatically recognized as political refugees. “There is no country on earth which would do that,” and least of all “the country which is on the border” of Africa, and into which millions more would try to cross.

Rather, he said, Israel should not be ashamed to bring its dilemma to the international community and seek its help. He estimated that there were some 75,000 would-be refugees on the move from central Africa, and 50,000 of them are in Israel. “Some will be recognized as political refugees. Some of the others will get the status of foreign workers here. Some will have to get the status of foreign workers in other countries. We can tell ourselves a thousand times it’s very unfair that they’re here. But we can’t just throw them away. It’s like the talk of transfer — not only is it not practical, but morally Israel cannot do it. So we have to propose opportunities for them, and involve the international community more energetically in sharing the responsibility for their future.” In speech after speech, Sharansky noted, President Obama “mentions the responsibility of the free world toward central Africa.” America says so often that it cannot be indifferent. “Well, okay,” said Sharansky, then let America and others get involved.

2. On the rights of settlers

In discussing the migrants, Sharansky had mentioned “transfer” — which in Hebrew used to refer to the concept of forcing or encouraging Arabs in Israel to leave, but is used more generally and vaguely of late. I drew him back to the issue, and more specifically to this week’s ministerial dispute over the fate of settlers — sparked by The Times of Israel’s scoop on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to demand that those settlers who find themselves in “Palestine” under a two-state solution be given the choice to stay put or relocate to sovereign Israel. I asked him about settlers’ rights, and about the rights of Israeli Arab citizens, where there has been much recent discussion about Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s idea of redrawing the borders, so that perhaps 300,000 residents of the Galilee triangle might find themselves rendered residents of “Palestine.”

Sharansky said he had been arguing since the mid-to-late 1990s, when he was a government minister, that the best way to judge the seriousness of the peace process, the best criterion by which to gauge whether the two societies were truly ready for peace, was by their handling of the issue of Jews in a Palestinian state and Arabs in Israel. There’ll be room for optimism, he said, when “we don’t have to discuss how we are removing Jews and how they are removing Arabs” from each other’s territory.

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas during an interview broadcast at the INSS security conference in Tel Aviv, January 28, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/INSS Israel)
President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas during an interview broadcast at the INSS security conference in Tel Aviv, January 28, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/INSS Israel)

Thus the current reality is deeply discouraging, because it apparently “goes without saying that every territory that is left by the Israeli army has to be Jew-free, that Abu Mazen feels very comfortable saying what he says [about insisting there be no Israelis in his putative state], that he doesn’t feel on this issue he will have any problem with the world — it’s clear that there will be no Jews.” And meanwhile, “others say that we’ll be crazy if we stay there” – we, being the settlers. All this, said Sharansky, shows how “not symmetrical the situation is, and that’s why I don’t believe in the reality of this peace process, which is brought from the top and not from the bottom.”

He was not entirely bleak. He praised the “real growth of civil society in the West Bank” as advancing peace. “The former British prime minister [and Middle East Quartet envoy] Tony Blair deserves much more credit for this than today’s leaders,” he said. But as for the prospects for talks brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry yielding viable peace, by imposing a take it or leave it deal, well, forget it, he said.

Abbas, he stressed, is correct to think that Palestinian society is not ready to live with Jews in its midst. “He’s right. He’s saying, Our society is not ready to accept this. He’s not saying, I’m anti-Semitic. But this, for me, is the barometer of readiness or not readiness to accept a peace treaty.”

He said the Americans have never internalized the imperative to build peace bottom up, by first creating a viable civil society, but then neither have other world leaders, or even all Israeli leaders. “What was the Oslo agreement?” he asked, and answered his rhetorical question witheringly. “The Oslo agreement was a decision to bring [Yasser] Arafat here: We will force the Palestinians to accept fully Arafat as their strong leader. Not only we in Israel, but we the world, will give as much money to Arafat, the strongman, as he needs to fight against Hamas and that’s how peace will be brought.” Sharansky recalled that he and I were working together at The Jerusalem Report when he wrote an article in 1993 criticizing the Oslo process, citing the assertion by Yitzhak Rabin that it would work because it would play out “without the High Court of Justice, without B’Tselem, without the bleeding hearts.”

Over and over, for the past 20 years, said Sharansky, Israeli leaders and international peacemakers have set impossible short-term deadlines to try to impose a peace agreement. “Now they say we have nine months to make a deal. Each time, [a deadline] is decided, and each time nothing happens, and each time when I start raising my ‘crazy ideas’ about civil society, they say it’s a good idea but it will take too long, 10 years. No, I say, five years. Still too long, they say. This has been going on for 20 years, and we’ll be carrying on like this.

‘If Abbas were to say, We can accept the fact that Jews will live here, he would be killed’

“And the only good thing that’s happening is happening in spite of all this: Civil society for Palestinians was much better before 1993 than when Yasser Arafat came and started destroying it” and it’s improving again now, in the post-Arafat era. Sharansky said that when he was negotiating with the Palestinian leadership as minister of trade and industry in the mid-to-late 1990s, the Palestinian economy “became so controlled, such a racket.” If a business initiative benefited this or that leader and his family, it went ahead. If not, not. Now, by contrast, the Palestinians have a relatively free economy, in part because “political fear of Abu Mazen is not the same as political fear was of Arafat.”

What’s still needed, he stressed, is true “political freedom and education.If there was organized collective effort by the free world on these issues,” rather than the constant encouragement being given to the Palestinian leadership that they can circumvent these issues and get a state, then we’d truly get closer to peace.

Coming back to the settlers, Sharansky stressed that if they wanted to leave rather than live under Palestinian rule, that would of course be their choice. “But if they have to leave because otherwise they will be killed, and the world accepts that of course they will be killed,” that shows the problem. I put it to him that the world doesn’t much care about settlers being killed; it cares, rather, about radical Israelis in the heart of the Palestinian state. “If they’re radical [and commit crimes], they’ll be put in Palestinian prisons,” he responded. “We also have radical Arabs in Umm el-Fahm. We now even have some connected to al-Queda. The security forces have to deal with that. [The problem is that] Abu Mazen says, We will not permit Jews to be among us. That’s what he can say easily in every refugee camp and they will applaud him. If he were to say, We can accept the fact that Jews will live here, he would be killed.”

3. On the rights of Israeli Arabs

What about that mirror proposal of Liberman, I asked him again: redrawing the border and redefining Israeli Arabs as Palestinians?

‘We got the state together with citizens who are not Jewish. We can’t now decide that those who are not Jewish [are not Israeli citizens]’

His response to his fellow Soviet émigré and one-time political rival was a firm no. Such remarcations and redefinitions did happen around the world, he began, “when states were losing their sovereignty and they were shaping anew the map.” But that was no precedent for Israel’s reality. “Here we’re talking about the state [of Israel] — which has laws, which has agreements between citizens. You cannot decide that, from now, some of the citizens won’t be citizens. As a minimum, you have to give them the opportunity to decide. If they will agree, that’s something else. But we cannot [impose it].

In partitioning British mandatory Palestine, he noted, the UN did precisely that: “It said, okay, the territory where there’s a majority of Jews will be a Jewish state. The territory where there’s a majority of Arabs will be an Arab state. [But that was] because the Jewish state and the Arab state didn’t exist, so the world was deciding for them. The moment the [Jewish] state was created — though the other [Arab] one didn’t want to be created — since it is a democratic state, there is a treaty with the citizens. If there will be a massive desire among the Arabs of Umm el-Fahm to withdraw their (Israeli) citizenship, I don’t think we have to fight it. But we got the state together with citizens who are not Jewish. We can’t now decide that those who are not Jewish [are not Israeli citizens].”

4. On US presidents and human rights

Given that George W. Bush had a lot of time for his ideas, I asked Sharansky what he made of Bush’s successor Barack Obama, and particularly his performance in the field of human rights. The response was extremely negative.

Sharansky said he “surprised,” by which, it quickly became plain, he meant profoundly disappointed. “When he was about to be elected, I wrote an article saying that while there were doubtless many areas in which Obama would not want to follow Bush, there is one where it would be very natural for him to do so — because Bush met with more than 100 democratic dissidents, many of them in my presence when I brought him to Prague” in 2007. “He broke many taboos, meeting the Dalai Lama officially, meeting with all types of dissidents.”

‘If American politicians had treated [Andrei] Sakharov the way American leaders today are treating Egyptian dissidents, the Soviet Union might still exist’

Bush, stressed Sharansky, was certainly not naive about realpolitik, “but he felt emotionally involved” with the dissidents. “He was curious.” And that overt presidential support for their various struggles, said Sharansky, was vital in giving them influence and resonance and credibility.

He said he’d had only one meeting with Obama, during the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, that Obama — alone among the candidates — readily agreed to meet him at very short notice, and that it had seemed clear at that meeting that “it would be very important to him to continue this tradition where American presidents help dissidents. But where Bush made a big step, he simply stopped. You can’t tell me one important human rights activist (with whom Obama has met) when he was not already on the winning side.”

President Shimon Peres meets with former US president Jimmy Carter in Jerusalem on Sunday (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)
President Shimon Peres meets with former US president Jimmy Carter in Jerusalem in October 2012 (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)

In a dismal summary, Sharansky said that “if American politicians had treated [Andrei] Sakharov the way American leaders today are treating Egyptian dissidents, the Soviet Union might still exist.”

He noted that it was Jimmy Carter — a president about whom “we have so little good to say” — who personally corresponded with Sakharov early in his presidency, when the nuclear physicist and leading anti-Soviet dissident most needed outside support. “That personal letter, the promises he made, had such a big influence on the status of Sakharov in the minds of double thinkers” — by which he means those living under dictatorships who don’t believe in the ideology but have not yet become dissidents, prepared to speak their mind and risk the consequences. “There was a growing number of double thinkers in the Soviet Union, and they had to feel that the free world (was with them).”

Carter, in short, came through. “He was a beginning president. To start by establishing personal relations with Sakharov, for the first time in history? The KGB was bewildered. Was it that he didn’t understand that it could undermine many interests? Of course he did. But America took a position.”

5. On Obama, the Arab Spring and Iran

Which brought us, again, to Obama, and the current Middle East challenges. Sharansky flatly blamed the president for failing to support those dissidents who, across the region, were standing up against dictatorship. “With all that is happening in the Middle East,” he charged, “the president of the United States doesn’t take a position.” He hadn’t even met with Egyptian dissidents, with their families, Sharansky protested. And the original human rights sin, right at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, Sharansky added, came with Iran.

If Obama had backed Iran’s dissidents, ‘the whole Arab Spring could have been a very different story’

“Iran is the saddest [instance], from my point of view, because everything starts from this. Everything starts from the fact that in 2009, when Iranians were ready for the revolution, when millions of double thinkers were going to cross this line — because what is revolution? When double thinkers cross the line and become dissidents — so they were sitting there, and they hear the message from the American president: Engagement with the government of Iran is more important than the replacement [of the government of Iran].”

Reflecting on Obama’s refusal to take a clear stance on behalf of those protesting the ayatollahs’ regime in 2009, Sharansky mimed a balloon rapidly deflating. “That took all the energy out of this [movement]. And if it had succeeded then,” he added, “the whole Arab Spring could have been a very different story.”

An Israeli woman takes part in a 2009 demonstration in Tel Aviv in support of Iranian opposition protestors (Photo by Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
An Israeli woman takes part in a 2009 demonstration in Tel Aviv in support of Iranian opposition protestors (Photo by Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

In their single conversation 18 months earlier, he said, they had discussed Iran’s dissidents at length, and Obama had “promised to support them. He was great.” Then he became president, apparently believed himself to be uniquely positioned to make peace between Muslims and Christians, and started sounding and acting very differently.

In Egypt, too, stressed Sharansky, Obama in his landmark Cairo outreach speech shrank from directly criticizing the absence of democracy under Mubarak. The US then abandoned Mubarak only after it was clear he was finished, thus alienating the forces that ousted him. It then displayed its ambivalence about Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, until it saw that Morsi was imposing his rule, becoming a strong man in the worst dictatorial traditions, and “then it invited Morsi to Washington!” — precisely as Egyptians were starting to hate him.

US President Obama delivering his famed Cairo Speech in 2009. The president highlighted the need for social progress in his first major address to the Muslim world. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)
US President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo on June 4, 2009. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

Now, said Sharansky, the pattern is repeating itself yet again in Egypt. Another strongman, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, having cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, is now arresting dissidents. And the United States is silent.

So what should the US be doing? Sharansky sighed. The guiding principle, he reiterated, must be to support processes for creating societies with free economies, political freedom, and bottom-up educational work. “Just consistently support steps towards civil society — in Egypt, in the West Bank, everywhere. Do that for a few years.”

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