Natan Sharansky and his ideas have always been underestimated by his opponents. First, the Communist commissars thought they could get rid of the little man with the great big ideas—such as his intention to end the Soviet Union—by shutting him away in solitary confinement. Nonetheless, Sharansky, with essential assistance from his wife Avital, emerged from the depths of the Soviet Gulag. The commissars of the USSR, meanwhile, ended up in the dustbin of history.
Sharansky had prevailed.
Then came Ehud Barak. As prime minister, Barak went to Camp David with Yasser Arafat as the guest of President Bill Clinton. As news leaked out that Barak had agreed to divide the Jewish capital of Jerusalem, Sharansky jumped into action. He called the offices of One Jerusalem and said that we need to show the world that the Jewish people want to maintain a united Jerusalem under the jurisdiction of the state of Israel. We too jumped into action. Eight days later we had organized the largest rally in Israel’s history: 400,000 people gathered in front of the gates of the Old City. Even the New York Times could not ignore this massive celebration for a united Jerusalem. The Times published a photograph on its front page.
Barak, who had treated Sharansky as a Russian immigrant with little political power, learned the hard way the power of Sharansky’s ideas and his commitment to seeing them become reality. Within days of the demonstration, Sharansky had resigned from the government and many other ministers soon followed. Barak became another victim of the sweep of history—a history driven in no small measure by Natan Sharansky.
Today, it is Ariel Sharon who must contend with Sharansky. The prime minister and his cohorts are either ignoring or downplaying the impact of Sharansky’s resignation from the government. Sharon probably knows better: Sharansky, he likely realizes, played a major role in defeating Likud party’s referendum on the pull-out from Gaza, which was initiated by Sharon. When most everybody believed that Sharon would gain approval of his referendum, Sharansky decided to go head to head with the leader of his party and his country. Despite being outspent, Sharansky helped defeat the referendum on the unilateral withdrawal.
While no one knows if Sharansky will be successful one more time, we can be certain that he will give Sharon and the government a mighty good fight. After all, Sharansky has developed a relationship with the President of the United States. After a 90 minute meeting with President Bush, the president began promoting Sharansky’s book The Case for Democracy as the intellectual underpinning for the war in Iraq and the campaign to promote democracy around the world. (Just recently, Time magazine, taking his impact on President Bush into consideration, declared Sharansky one of the world’s top 100 most influential people.)
In his resignation letter from the Israeli government, Sharansky explains his action using the same arguments he makes in The Case for Democracy. He writes:
“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 reasons for Sharansky’s decision to resign are the same reasons he supports democratic movements in Iraq, Cuba, and indeed wherever people are oppressed: Sharansky believes that a free Palestinian society is considerably less threatening than an autocratic, terrorist entity. President Bush has said that Sharansky reflects his views on Afghanistan and Iraq; Sharansky believes they are equally applicable to the plight of the Palestinians.
In a recent conversation with a leader in the House of Representatives, I broke the news that Sharansky had resigned and why he had done so. The congressman listened and agreed: It makes all the sense the world to demand democratic reforms among the Palestinians. He also wondered why President Bush was pushing for massive aid to the Palestinian government when they have not addressed any of Sharansky’s concerns. For instance, the Palestinian leadership has taken no steps toward granting greater freedoms to the Palestinian people.
If history is any judge, what makes Natan Sharansky such a formidable opponent is that he appreciates the power of an idea. And in his case the idea is truly a powerful one: Freedom. Political leaders in both the U.S. and Israel would do well to take it—and its leading exponent—seriously.
Allen Roth is president of One Jerusalem. www.onejerusalem.org