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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2001 / 13 Shevat, 5761

Norman Doidge

Norman Doidge
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Up against the tyrants

Natan Sharansky challenged Barak's leadership because he learned in a Soviet jail that you can't work with a dictator -- ISRAEL is going to the polls today and, by all accounts, the people have decided to change course. One man who had a major influence on this change is Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and human rights activist, now a member of Israel's parliament.

His recent resignation from Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Cabinet helped seal Mr. Barak's fate. Mr. Sharansky resigned because Mr. Barak refused to join forces with opposition members of Parliament -- preferring to make decisions that would affect the nation for generations to come, without involving half the nation. Then Mr. Sharansky organized the largest assembly in the history of the Jewish state, expressing the nation's love for Jerusalem. It was an apolitical rally that unified the country, a rally at which he, unlike almost any politician of modern times, refused to speak a word.

Today, Mr. Sharansky the unifier is a strong contender to be Israel's next foreign minister and, many believe, a future prime minister. Within hours, Mr. Barak will pay the price.

Mr. Sharansky's moral authority is based on years of working as human rights activist Andrei Sakharov's lieutenant, fighting to bring democracy to the Soviet Union in the '70s. The KGB made a special attempt to break Mr. Sharansky. They threatened to execute him, they sentenced him to 15 years in Siberian and other prisons and slave labour camps, and confined him for hundreds of days in darkened, unheated, solitary punishment cells on starvation rations. His weight dropped from 143 to 77 pounds.

Yet, like many who were imprisoned for their beliefs -- Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela -- there is a sense of irresistible destiny that attaches to a man willing to die for principles. Mr. Sharansky encapsulates Jewish history, moving from total ignorance of Judaism, to interest, then slavery, then to the promised land. In a world of slick, attractive narcissistic politicians, Mr. Sharansky -- bald, barely over five feet -- has become the most revered hero in the Jewish world. Suddenly his experience in overcoming dictatorships seems especially relevant to Israel's battles against the dictatorships of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which surround it.

I spent a day with Mr. Sharansky in Toronto last week. His mind is mathematical. Before he was falsely accused of spying for the United States (in a Kremlin attempt to discredit the human rights movement) he worked at the Soviet equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He survived in the darkened Soviet punishment cells playing mental chess, "hoping to become the world champion," he laughs. When world champion Gary Kasparov went a few years ago to Israel to play simultaneous chess with leaders of Israel's government -- including Mr. Barak and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu -- all were defeated, except Mr. Sharansky. "That's my claim to fame in Israel today, beating the world champion. It gives me more supporters among my electorate than nine years in prison."

Mr. Sharansky's political understanding has the economy and clarity of a few mathematical axioms. He explains what's gone wrong with the peace process, and how to fix it, in a paragraph:

"The mistake was to ignore the nature of the two regimes involved, as though it had nothing to do with the peace process. There are regimes where the leaders depend on their people. There are regimes where the people depend on their leaders. In the former case, democracy, the leader must care for the people's well-being in order to survive. In the latter case, tyranny, the leader has to keep his people under control in order to survive, because no one likes to be controlled. History shows there are two ways to control the people. One can mobilize them to hate an internal enemy, or mobilize them to hate an external one. This is what has happened with Arafat: he used the Palestinian textbooks to teach the current generation to hate far more than the previous one. There will be no peace in the Middle East as long as Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. There are no wars between democracies, only between tyrannies and democracies, and tyrannies and tyrannies. But there can be peace, where the people enjoy freedom, and are reluctant to go to war."

During November, the Israeli government published a white paper documenting hundreds of Palestinian violations of existing accords, and yet proceeded to offer escalating concessions that seemed to increase Palestinian calls for holy war. "From what you saw in Cabinet," I asked, "what was going on in Mr. Barak's mind?"

"He knew of all the violations, as did Rabin, Peres, and the Americans. But the policy was not to face the crude reality, but to pacify or appease Arafat, and to pacify Israeli public opinion and to convince them to go ahead with the peace process. The Clinton administration believed that the main problem was the weakness of Arafat, and the last thing we should do is press him to fulfill his obligations, because his survival would be threatened, and we didn't have any other partner.

"Mr. Barak told me we had to reach an agreement while Clinton was in office because Clinton was personally devoted to the process. This meant going straight to the final agreement and ignoring Palestinian violations. Mr. Barak, as many political leaders, also distrusted the people, and decided that they were weak and tired. He'd say, 'We will see if Palestinians are ready, and if so, we will have a deal, and if not, at least all the world will know they are not ready, and our people will know it, and then we will all be united.' But he got caught in this process. I heard him say many times, 'We cannot stop now because the world now sees that we are sincere, and Arafat knows it.' When it didn't work, he called for 'one more concession,' and then 'one more' saying if we didn't, we'd lose all our political capital. It was a dangerous illusion."

In Mr. Sharansky's autobiography he observes that "the more a prisoner was broken," by the KGB's unrelenting attacks, "the more important it was for him to have some kind of evidence the authorities respected him." In view of the fact that Israel is surrounded by powers that want to break its will, I asked Mr. Sharansky if he felt there was a similar psychological phenomenon, Israel's wish to impress the world with its sincerity at any cost.

"This phenomenon goes on not with nations, but with the political leaders of the free world all the time when dealing with dangerous tyrannical regimes. Totalitarian regimes and dictatorships are very frightening to them, because there is no law and the state can do anything, so they want protection. The Western leaders become ready to justify any compromise to feel protected. It was difficult for the West to accept the idea that it must take a tough stand and link policy talks with the Soviet Union with human rights, as some of us were insisting.

"The West wanted quiet; if the Soviets wanted economic help, the West gave it; if the Soviets wanted arms agreements, the West signed them, ignoring that there were Soviet troops in Angola and Afghanistan. They would say, we are dealing with a superpower, and perhaps the Russian people are not built for democracy. It was a double standard. What is behind this double standard was fear. Then came Senator [Henry] Jackson, and President Reagan, who called a spade and spade, and the Soviet Union an evil empire. Reagan linked Western security with human rights and deterrence, then launched his Star Wars and changed the rules of the game. That is what helped the Russian people and the Eastern block to become a part of the democratic world.

"This same process is precisely what happened with Arafat. The enlightened democratic, free nations decided, 'Let's work with a dictator. Arafat will control the people with the Palestinian Authority.' Western leaders, including Israeli leaders, began trying to strengthen Arafat, overlooking the nature of his regime. Rabin said 'Arafat has no Supreme Court, no free press and no human rights organizations. That's why he can deal with our enemies, the Hamas, much easier than we can.' Of course it's bad for Palestinians who want democracy as well as Israelis."

Mr. Sharansky, who had arrived that morning on the red-eye from Israel, and spent the day in non-stop meetings, electrified a rally in Toronto, then ended his day, not by going to bed, but catching an 11:55 p.m. flight to Moscow. (Experience surviving interrogation by the KGB under sleep deprivation can come in handy, even in democratic life.) The next day he returned to Israel to campaign for Ariel Sharon, who he is convinced will form a broad coalition "National Unity" government.

As for the Bush administration, he is upbeat after meeting with Vice-President Richard Cheney, who told him the United States intends to "resume its old friendship with Israel." That administration is now filled with members of the Reagan administration, who he believes understand that durable peace will come when Israel is no longer the only democracy in the Middle East.

JWR contributor Dr. Norman Doidge is a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Comment by clicking here.


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©2001, Dr. Norman Doidge