(Below is Part II of Lee Kaplan's interview with Natan Sharansky. To read Part I Click Here).
Minister Sharansky was forced to cut our first interview short due to a hectic schedule. He had already visited nearly 20 college campuses throughout the United States. It should be noted that San Francisco State University forbade his scheduled speaking engagement on campus for “security reasons.” I later learned that the “security reasons” were that he was accompanied by an armed professional Israeli security team, no different than what any other traveling foreign government dignitary would bring when speaking publicly. Certainly, if the President of the United States came to speak at SFSU the university would not bar him from speaking because his Secret Service agents were armed. The purpose of this interview, completed by phone from Israel, is to share with the world the profound words and ideas of this man, words and ideas that a public California university sought to prevent its student body from hearing. He called me at in the evening from Israel after a long flight home, followed by a full day in the Knesset.
KAPLAN: Minister Sharansky, which candidate for the U.S. presidency would you like to see in the White House? Who do you think would be the best for Israel?
SHARANSKY: No (laughter)…we have enough problems with our own politics. Now you want to involve me in American politics? First of all, I hope that your president will remain a strong supporter of Israel, because our bond was created not by personal relationships between presidents and prime ministers, but because we are the only democracy in the Middle East. It is no accident that Israel and America are on the same side in this global struggle between democracy and terror. It is vitally important for us that today’s President of the United States recognizes that terrorist attacks, whether they occur in New York or in the Middle East, are part of the same challenge that terrorism poses for democracies. Also, the deep linkage between security and democracy harkens back to the policies of Democrat Andrew Jackson and Republican Ronald Reagan. So I hope that our bond will remain strong because I think that it is in Israel’s best interest.
KAPLAN: Do you see yourself becoming Prime Minister of Israel in the future? How would you end the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians?
SHARANSKY: Well, my problem with becoming Prime Minister is that not everyone who says I should become the Prime Minister has the right to vote in Israel. So if those people decide to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel) then I will probably have a chance (laughter). Seriously, I am the one who during all of my years in the Soviet Union said that peace can only be established by a real government of the people. You can trust only those governments that trust their own people. So I believe that real change will happen when Israel will not be the only democracy in this part of the world. I believe a lot depends on our efforts, and that we find the appropriate leader, one who will inspire democratic Palestinians to confront the terrorists from Hamas and the other Palestinian terror organizations. That was the hope from Oslo. So as long as we continue on the current course there’s less of a chance of that happening.
But at the same time I believe that we, as Israelis and Americans, along with Europe and the rest of the free world, can create a very effective policy of encouraging and supporting a linkage between security and democracy. Because, after all, the Palestinian Authority is dependent on the free world, much more so than, say, Brezhnev and the other Soviet leaders were. This way, disagreements between politicians can be worked out.
KAPLAN: I read once that Israel considers all of world Jewry to be de facto Israelis. As
Minister for Diaspora Affairs, do you think that is true?
SHARANSKY: Look, Israel is a unique nation. I know of no nation in the world like it. I It was created as a tool for gathering the Jewish people together after two thousand years of exile. One important expression of this is the Law of Return, which says that almost any Jew in the world will be automatically granted Israeli citizenship at the moment he or she desires it. This means the state of Israel belongs not only to those who are living here but to the entire world Jewish community as well. I think it’s a very powerful expression, this central function of the state, that of granting a state to a people after two thousand years of exile.
KAPLAN: I’m sure this will have a lot of meaning to fellow Jews all over the world.
SHARANSKY: No doubt it has to have a lot of meaning. For us as Jews in the Soviet Union who were forced to assimilate, it was Israel’s fighting for its right to exist in 1967 which gave us personal dignity and the strength and hope to fight,. This led ultimately to the release of the Soviet Jews and the defeat of Communism.
KAPLAN: Is the Israeli Left just misguided or do they seek to harm the country? What do you think of the Geneva Accords?
SHARANSKY: Look, I think most of them have a very sincere and passionate desire for peace and maybe some of them have a somewhat noble idea, but it’s not enough to have dreams about a better future. It’s not enough if your policy is dictated by good will and good intentions. If you’re trying to escape from reality into the world of dreams, you are inviting danger into the rest of the world around you. We have learned this lesson from the creators of Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet stat who were dreaming about the great future of equality for all of mankind, yet created Communism, one of the most awful systems of government in the world. And many of the creators were Jews. Now these people in the Middle East dream that they can build peace by bringing a ruthless dictator like Arafat from Tunis into the center of the Middle East, meeting many of his demands and desires, and hoping that will fight terrorist organizations such as Hamas. This was advocated by our Prime Minister at the time, if you remember. In fact this helped to build a regime that became a repository of terror and a power basis for Hamas and similar organizations.
So I believe there is a desperate desire of some people to seek to reach peace by any means, who will attempt to find easy and quick solutions. As such they will welcome any dictator who will tell them he is their partner. That is the new danger of these programs. This desire to appease a dictator is typical of liberals who are ready to believe that liberalism and democracy and human rights are good for them, but they are ready to sacrifice the human rights and democracy of other people to get a quick peace. And that same mistake, unfortunately, is done again and again and again.
KAPLAN: Touching on that, some Israeli leftist groups like Peace Now work alongside Arab lobbyists in Washington, D.C. In turn, Peace Now in the U.S. belongs to the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations. Is this a security risk for Israel?
SHARANSKY: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. We very often we see that establishing a democracy is a very risky thing. We are surrounded by regimes that are awful, totalitarian, and corrupt. All are fundamentalist regimes or secular dictatorships and we are the only democracy. We have to learn how to fight against terror and remain a democratic country and again and again we are trying. We think, again and again should we restrict democracy to make our fight against terrorism easier or keep a higher standard
for a democratic state even if it means a more difficult struggle? And the practical always was the second way and I think it’s the right way. Churchill once said democracy is a bad thing, but nothing better has come along. What matters is that it’s worth paying the price to be democratic.
But then it becomes a question of what kind of personal responsibility should every Jew, every person take on for himself or herself. I think that the behavior of many of those who are trying, despite all the mistakes and the illusions and the price Jews have paid by this, is disappointing. We don’t have any partners in the struggle against terror in the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, we are ready again and again to pretend we have a partner and to declare every person who is ready to say he is a partner as one, or to say there will be peace in two months, so as to press Israel to make one-sided concessions or inviting renewed pressure on Israel. From these people I expect and demand personal responsibility. But I don’t think we should restrict our citizens in their expression of their views or intentions.
KAPLAN: What role is Israel’s Communist Party playing in the peace process?
SHARANSKY: The Communist Party for years was like some kind of branch of the
Soviet communist party and followed the lead of the Soviet regime. Back then, the Communist party for years was proud to have Jews and Arabs on one list. Today the party contains only cynical Arabs who are basically against Israel and anti-Jewish. They have practically no influence on any of the Jewish population and also no influence on the country itself.
KAPLAN: So Israel’s Communist Party, you feel, is mostly controlled by the Arabs?
Their leadership and writers are quoted extensively here on U.S. campuses and touted as experts calling for the dismantling of Israel.
SHARANSKY: It stopped being an ideological pro-Soviet satellite and it simply became one more Arab party. While there are fundamentalist parties and Arab nationalist parties, this has become a communist Arab party.
KAPLAN: What about Anat Biletzki? She is an Israeli Jew involved with B’tselem, a Jewish “peace group” that frequently sides with the Arabs. She is a former head of Israel’s Communist Party.
SHARANSKY: Again, the fact is that not a single Communist Party candidate for the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) on the list is Jewish. Biletzki was the last Jewish member in the Knesset and since she left the party has had no real support from mainstream Israelis. But that is not accidental. The party compromised itself by way of a vicious land design alliance with the Arabs. Again, this ideology of Communism compromised itself absolutely, because the Communist Party could have had a future in Israel. The kibbutz movement and other forms of communal life that are not found in other countries do have an existence in Israel. But the Communists disassociated themselves from this type of life because they were puppets of the Soviet Union. They were opposed to anything that was authentically socialist, such as the communal organization of the kibbutz, because it wasn’t dictated from Moscow. The result was that they lost all their power, support and base among Jews in Israel.
KAPLAN: I find that interesting. The party is heavily involved in the anti-Israel movement on campuses in the United States. Ilan Pappe, a former Communist Party
candidate for the Knesset, has lectured against Israel on campuses here claiming to represent a sizeable faction of the Israeli population.
SHARANSKY: Really? Here they have practically no power.
KAPLAN: Are you familiar with Al Awda? This is a network of organizations in the United States, also called the Palestine Right of Return Committee. It is active on many campuses here. Currently President Bush’s letter is being touted as denying the Right of Return to the Palestinian Movement. However, I’m hearing from some in the Israeli press it is just spin. What’s your take on President Bush’s actual meaning on the Right of Return and is that issue dead for the Palestinians now? (The Right of Return advocates that 5 million Palestinians be allowed to move inside Israel’s 1948 borders to outnumber and overwhelm the Jewish population by sheer numbers). I read the letter and didn’t see anything in there saying he was ending the Right of Return.
SHARANSKY: I also don’t see it. You see, from the American point of view, it’s more natural for the Palestinians to go to Ramallah or Jenin and not to Haifa and Tel Aviv.
But it’s clear it has to be discussed between Israel and the Palestinians...
KAPLAN: I was curious if you thought the stories being bandied about that the Americans would not require Israel to accept the Right of Return were true?
SHARANSKY: Look, I think the language there is very careful. In general, it’s a good letter. Better for us with this letter than without it. But the letter will be meaningful when
we come to the final negotiation. It will help us to make our case—maybe not—but that’s why I think it’s a good letter. I can’t think it can pay for us to go on with one-sided negotiations with terror regimes.
KAPLAN: Currently both political parties in the U.S. are being influenced by a massive lobbying campaign by Arab interests against Israel’s right to exist. It has been reworded,
as I mentioned, as the Right of Return, a play on Israel’s Law of Return. What is Israel
doing to educate the outside world about what the Right of Return really means?
SHARANSKY: Well, I think one major part of the problem is the world has a very short memory. The journalists writing about the Middle East have a short memory. They don’t know what happened in 1947 or1948, they don’t know what happened in 1967, they don’t even know what happened in the year 2000. For them the history begins the day they come here. For them, there is no way to know the history of Israel. It’s a big problem. There is no way to understand the history of the creation of the state of Israel, this flood of Jewish immigrants, of Arab refugees on one hand and Jewish refugees from Arab lands in greater numbers than those Arabs running away from Israel. And there are those who don’t understand this unique phenomenon of four generations of Palestinians living in refugee camps. There is no such example in history. And the Palestinians openly wanted live in refugee camps or to go back to the place where their grandfathers lived. Can you imagine if you kept Jews in refugee camps? Israel assimilated its refugees. Was anybody in Europe kept in refugee camps after World War II? There were so many refugees in so many countries. There were so many waves of refugees and everybody found a place. All this publicity has been created about the camps—for four generations—in order to use them as a tool to destroy the state of Israel, so that one day their children, their grandchildren and their great grandchildren will go back to Israel and they will remove this “unnatural, non-Arab, non-Muslim formation” in the center of the Arab world. It is so unfortunate, I want to say tragic, that the democratic leaders of the Western world are so active in playing into their hands.
KAPLAN: I am aware of these things as a journalist who writes on these matters. But for the man on the street, there are non-Jews and even some American Jews who are unaware of these things. Can Israel do more to educate people here in America?
SHARANSKY: I would say we should do more—of course. But it’s also very important that the world should be willing to risk more. No doubt in the debate we don’t have enough money for public relations to explain the situation. We are spending 50 times less than the Arab countries for their anti-Zionist propaganda courses. If we were successful in doubling the budget, which is would be plenty difficult, it would still be less than one-twentieth of our opponents’ budget. Especially when we are living in this modern world of pictures where you see a picture of a boy in a refugee camp with a tank behind him. This picture has no background, no depth or history behind it. The journalist wants only the picture and he’s not interested in what brought about the situation. It’s difficult to win this type of informational war. That’s why of course we have to make the effort to make people understand, but people now have to understand what we are dealing with.
KAPLAN: What I see happening on U.S. college campuses is money from the Saudis going to fund Arab and leftist groups who want to dismantle Israel. One leftist group here was involved in funding leftists in Israel who offered to pay Israeli army reservists to desert their units and subsidize them with more than their regular army pay. Are you aware of this? They use the name “refuseniks” which is outrageous since that term was actually coined to refer to Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel.
SHARANSKY: We are very busy tracking the flow of money to terrorist organizations. I don’t like their use of term “refusenik” for the reason you mentioned. I think the fact there are soldiers who refuse to serve is unfortunate, but it’s a part of democracy. We also have soldiers who say they will refuse orders to evacuate Jewish settlements. In both cases, there is a law we are applying, trying to respect the right of people to have an independent opinion but also there are minimum obligations we all have to do. Are we using the law in this case? Yes, in a very, very liberal way. Are we trying to watch for organizations that are making publicity for them? No. It’s very difficult for a democracy to do this type of thing.
KAPLAN: How does Israel regard the U.S. presence in Iraq? Is there a fear in Israel of a premature U.S. withdrawal and would a Kerry presidency affect that?
SHARANSKY: First of all, Israelis, of course, feel relieved and grateful for America’s help. And it’s very important that not only the American campaign finish successfully but that this attempt to encourage a modern democratic state in Iraq be successful because that is what can have a tremendous influence on our region and on Palestinians specifically. That, I believe, is what can motivate Palestinians to move toward a more democratic society. But you have to remember the big challenge for America now is how to make and revive stability and to encourage different groups to work together in building democratic institutions. It’s not simple. What has to be remembered is democracy is not about elections; democracy is about people being able express their views without fear of punishment. It means that elections must follow the building of democratic institutions. That’s exactly what America is trying to encourage. We all call for this. America will succeed in this.
KAPLAN: Is there a fear that the U.S. may decide to throw in the towel and withdraw
SHARANSKY: Yeah, well, of course, we do hope there will be no anarchy developing in that part of the world and that America will not leave after all its effort, leaving that regime alone without support. Our country has a fear, but there is definitely a hope that America will do everything in order to see that broad democratic elements will end up in power in Iraq.
KAPLAN: Where do you see Israel in 20 years?
SHARANSKY: Well, as the leading force of democracy and progress in this part of the world. It will also become the world’s leader in technology. Perhaps some parts of America will be able to compete, and maybe other locales, but Israel will become the leader, with the highest concentration of new ideas and products coming from Haifa. Israel will be a country in which more Jewish people will live than in the rest of the world. More than half of all Jews will live in Israel. And, of course, by far, the most reliable ally of the United States in the world.
KAPLAN: Is aliyah increasing or decreasing due to the violence?
SHARANSKY: Aliyah from some Western countries is increasing. From the former Soviet Union it went down for a number of years and now this year it is on its way up.
It was a huge figure when Jews were released from the former Soviet Union, 100,000 to 200,000.
KAPLAN: Do you foresee in the next 20 years there will be peace?
SHARANSKY: I believe in the next ten, 15 or 20 years another one million Jews will come from the former Soviet Union. They will come also from France and from America.
And they will come from America because Israel will attract them because of the quality of Jewish democratic life and not because of any negativity.
KAPLAN: Do you think the Arab birthrate will cause the Jewish population to become outnumbered?
SHARANSKY: No. I am not afraid of this. In fact, I believe Arabs will become more and more concerned that the Arab world is behind the West in democracy, in the areas of literature and education, and in communication with the rest of the world. They will see that their societies are outmoded and underdeveloped compared to most of the rest of the world, and are falling farther behind modern society. Their concern is growing because they are becoming aware of contradiction between these people’s traditional culture and the modern state institution. So I believe that the call of President Bush and other critics of the Arab world for that world to move in the direction of human rights and democracy will become stronger and stronger. The Arab world will be wise enough to listen to and support these voices. We will learn to understand that not all persons are equal, but that all peoples are equal. That is why I have also resolved to live in real freedom and democracy. I believe the changes that will take place in the Middle East will be comparable to the changes that occurred within the former communist bloc.
KAPLAN: That’s a terrific answer. Thanks, Minister Sharansky.
SHARANSKY: All the best.