It was precisely 25 years ago that Natan Sharansky, icon of the struggle to
liberate Soviet Jewry, walked to freedom across Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge, that
narrow tie between the Communist bloc and the West. Behind him, back behind the
Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union, he left a vast community of Jews who ached to
follow in his footsteps.
But not for long. The crack from which Sharansky
emerged grew swiftly into a chasm. Within less than six years, amid the
dizzyingly rapid collapse of the Soviet empire, no fewer than 400,000 members of
that community had been freed to emulate him in making new homes in
What makes this anniversary particularly poignant is that it
coincides with another potentially defining moment in the struggle for democracy
over totalitarianism – a moment when people across our region, some tentatively
and others more confidently, are rising up against their autocratic leaders.
They are demanding the same opportunities, the same stake in determining their
own futures, the same guarantees of freedom from persecution for speaking their
minds that even the mighty, grey, terrifying Soviet bureaucracy proved incapable
of denying to its masses.
And for all that tiny Israel is understandably
concerned at the direction the truly free peoples of the Middle East might
ultimately choose to follow with respect to our unloved Jewish state, Sharansky
is enthralled and enthused by what is unfolding.
Six years ago, he
published a book – co-written with Ron Dermer, now a senior adviser to the prime
minister – titled The Case for Democracy
and insistently subtitled “The Power of
Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” But the skeptics and the
self-proclaimed experts in this region always told Sharansky that, while he had
evidently outwitted and outlasted the Communists, he really didn’t understand
the ancient, bitter norms of the Middle East. In this part of the world,
Israelis from Ariel Sharon on down would lecture him, bloody experience had long
since demonstrated that nothing, actually, could overcome tyranny and
Israel’s best hope, and that of the West, ran the thinking,
rested in cultivating the more palatable tyrants. Arab democracy? How
So this small, unstoppable man, who has somehow crammed long
periods of dissidence, imprisonment, activism and politicking into his 63 years,
is feeling a certain vindication on the 25th anniversary of his own
liberation. Much more importantly, though, he recognizes the urgency and
sensitivities of the hour. Huge public protest, the readiness to push for
revolution, he says, is like water coming to the boil. Suddenly it rises up,
overflowing with new capabilities. But slam the lid on, turn off the heat, and
it falls back.
Iran saw a moment like this, less than two years ago, he
recalls. The students, the unions, suddenly they scented weakness. Their
frustrations with their Islamist rulers overflowed in the aftermath of the
fraudulent presidential elections. They boiled.
But the West
failed them. The West, and specifically, a new, untried president,
hesitated. The moment was lost. The mullahs slammed the lid
This time, says Sharansky – in this fascinating conversation which
took place at his chairman’s office in the Jewish Agency headquarters – Barack
Obama is sending smarter signals. And Israel, he insists, must
internalize how fortunate we are that the revolt is unfolding today in countries
where the Islamists are not yet strong enough to sweep into power, in countries
dependent on American aid, in countries where the West can yet seek to make its
The unholy, unsustainable pact between the West and the
dictators of the Middle East is being severed, as it should be, says Sharansky.
It is being severed by the people. And their will must be done.
crossed from East to West Berlin on February 11, 1986. I want to talk to you
mostly about the parallels or differences in the processes that were unfolding
then and now – with the Soviet Union beginning to collapse 25 years ago, and
part of the Arab world in the grip of its peoples’ protests against dictatorial
rule today. But let’s start with your memories of that unforgettable
It was one big ascent. It began the previous morning. I was taken
from the KGB’s Lefortovo prison (where he had begun his imprisonment for the
trumped-up crimes of treason and spying for the US nine years earlier, before
being sent to the Siberian gulag). I was given all new clothes, for the first
time in nine years.
I’d felt something was happening for the previous two
months. They had been feeding me very differently. I had thought maybe the head
of the KGB wanted to see me.
But now they were taking away all my old
Everything new was very big – not my size. I told them, “The
pants are falling down. Give me a belt.” But I was in prison, so they wouldn’t
give me a belt. They gave me some string.
They took me to the airport –
after a fight for me to get back my book of Psalms – about half an hour from
Moscow. A huge airplane. Me and four KGB guys.
But you didn’t know where
you were going?
They didn’t tell me. But I saw we were flying west. About three
hours. And then they came to tell me, in very solemn voices, that “in accordance
with the decision of the Supreme Soviet whatever, for behavior unworthy of a
Soviet citizen,” I am deprived of Soviet citizenship and exiled from the Soviet
Union. And then I made a speech, about how happy I was.
You made a speech
To them. I tell them I want to make a statement. They say, “We don’t
need your statements anymore.
It’s enough.” But I thought it was a great
moment, even though I was on the plane with only those four people. I’m really
free. So I made a statement.
To the four KGB guys?!
Yes. I tell them I’m
very happy that after 13 years, my request [to leave for Israel] has been
accepted. And I add – it was important for me to say this – that I was never a
spy. That I was fighting only for the right of Soviet Jews and others to be
free. And that I hope the day will come when all people will become as free as I
And then I read my Psalms.
Then we landed. And I was
disappointed to see signs everywhere – GDR, the German Democratic Republic. I
had thought, oh, now I’ll see my wife. And then the American ambassador in East
Berlin meets with me, and explains to me that tomorrow I’ll be exchanged, but
that today I’m in the hands of the East German KGB, and so don’t make any
They take me to some KGB place in the forest to sleep that
night. I don’t sleep for a minute.
Then the next day they take me to the
bridge. There, the American ambassador from West Berlin accompanies me. And
there’s a white line across the center of the Glienicke Bridge. I ask him,
“Where exactly is the border?” He says, “This line is the border.”
so clear. This line is the West. Freedom! So I jump. And that string breaks. And
I, at the last moment, catch my pants.
So when I’m asked, “What was your
first thought on entering the West?” I have to answer, “That I was going to lose
They take me straight to a car.
They call the State
Department to tell them that I’m free. I ask to send my regards to the president
They take me to a military base, and prepare to fly me
to Frankfurt where a plane is waiting to fly me to Israel. We sit on the plane
for 20 minutes. Then we hear that the brakes are broken, and we have to switch
planes. I can’t believe it. We’re not in a Soviet airplane! This is the first
American plane in my life, and the brakes don’t work.
So we change planes
and fly to Frankfurt. And I see my wife, Avital, for the first time in 12 years.
And then with my wife, in a much smaller airplane, I come to Israel. And all my
world is with me, and we finish at the Kotel.
So it was like one big
ascent – from Moscow, first airplane, second airplane, third airplane, straight
to the Kotel. If there is someone who went from hell to paradise, then that’s
how I feel.
That was really a very powerful feeling, and it’s with me to
this day. Of course, after that, the only way is down, so I’ve been going down
for 25 years. And I’m still in paradise.
So out of the blue, you find
yourself free and moving to Israel, and able to start life over, or a free life
for the first time. How would you describe it? And did you have goals for
yourself? Had you said to yourself, when I’m allowed to live freely, these are
the things I want to achieve?
Actually it was very smooth. I didn’t stop one
life and start another. There was a big change in my life, when I switched from
being a loyal Soviet citizen to becoming a dissident; from a double-thinker to a
dissident. Physically there was a change, because you are becoming oppressed,
searched, arrested and so on. But also psychologically, because I became a free
And that was at what age?
At the age of 25, in 1973, and I was
arrested four years after this. From then, it was all one struggle. And when I
got out, as I said at the airport [in Israel], of course we had to continue our
struggle, and not forget those who were still there.
I was a free person
in prison and now I remained a free person in Israel, who suddenly had many more
tools. So, you continue the struggle, at the same time while building our
family, after 12 years. That was a challenge by itself.
spent a lot of time in America organizing that famous demonstration [to free
Soviet Jewry in December 1987] in Washington. I had to spend three months to
convince the [Jewish] establishment, and to go to different communities, to have
this demonstration [to coincide with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s
It helped that I didn’t feel as though I was in a different
chapter, that my life was absolutely different. It was different.
was like the next floor in the same building.
The initial challenge was
to make sure that everybody else got out as well?
In terms of the public
challenge, yes, it was. In terms of my personal state of mind, you continue that
struggle. You had this evil empire against you. You were in solitary confinement
in this punishment cell. But you felt that in fact you were challenging the
whole empire, and that the whole Jewish world was behind you.
Now I had
moved from that cell to Israel, thank God, but it was the same
And it also involved a big debate with the
establishment.There was a debate about whether there were hundreds of
thousands of people who wanted to (leave the Soviet Union) or just two thousand.
We were insisting that there were hundreds of thousands. The more the Iron
Curtain fell down, the more it became clear that we were right. And that
heightened the feeling of responsibility. You moved from one struggle, against
the KGB, to this other struggle, for the others coming.
Your “big debate
with the establishment”: Is that the American establishment, the Israeli, the
Confrontation with the Israeli establishment started long
before I came to Israel, because I was a friend of Andrei Sakharov (eminent
Soviet physicist, then dissident and Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights
activist) and because I was the spokesman of two movements at the same time –
the dissident movement and the Zionist movement. I was seen to be endangering
the idea that [it might be possible to] quietly take the Jews out without
confrontation with the KGB. Of course, that was an idiotic idea.
Israeli establishment] also believed that mixing the dissident movement, the
human rights movement, with the Zionist movement, was extremely dangerous. Some
of them became very tough. They called my wife and said that I had crossed all
the lines. That I would go to prison, and they would not defend me. They told
her: Forget about him; we will find you another husband.
These were some
people from Lishkat Hakesher (the Israeli government’s liaison organization with
Jews in the Soviet bloc), who were like commissars of Zionism.
first year after I was arrested, particularly, Avital (who had immigrated to
Israel immediately after their wedding in 1974, when her exit visa was granted
and his was not) had to fight in spite of the Israeli establishment, who tried
to stop the public fight [on my behalf] because they were afraid of the trouble
my dissent might cause.
That was one area of confrontation.
was the fact that the Israeli establishment was very concerned that the Jews not
go to any other place but Israel. They would have preferred that [Soviet Jewish
emigration] be slower, but that they all go here. I was one of those respectable
Zionists who didn’t agree with the Israeli demand.
As for the American
Jewish establishment, they were afraid to be seen as troublemakers.
played a very important role. They were not bad guys.
They were very good
guys. But, for instance, they were fearful about this planned massive
demonstration of hundreds and thousands of Jews to coincide with Gorbachev’s
visit. I had said we should get 400,000 people to demonstrate so that the figure
would be remembered: 400,000 Americans will come because there are 400,000
Russian Jews who want to leave.
They said: “Who said that there are
400,000 Jews?” They said: “We have a list of a few thousand refuseniks. We have
to speak about them.
Second, they said, “You’re coming here and telling
us about things that you don’t understand.
Hundreds of thousands of
American Jews will not come in winter to Washington.” And the specialists from
the establishment counted: “17,000 – that’s the maximum figure that we can
deliver. In winter, more people will not come. And you will make us look awful.
Then you’ll just go back to Israel. But we will have to live with this: that we
promised hundreds of thousands and didn’t deliver.”
Third, and most
important, was their argument that “everyone is speaking about
Gorbachev finally is a good guy.
There are such big hopes.
He comes here to symbolize this new hope. And we Jews will be the ones to
destroy all this.”
I realized that nothing major was going to happen [to
heighten momentum for Soviet Jews to go free]. So I moved in August [to the US],
ahead of Gorbachev’s visit in December. I visited 30 communities. Every
community was so enthusiastic [about the planned demonstration].
end, as Avital had predicted, the establishment understood that, instead of
resisting, it should go ahead with this. As Avital had told me, “they will
eventually go with you, they will take credit, and then you’ll know that you
have won.” And that’s exactly what happened. And that was wonderful.
all joined. They all led. On the 6th of December, 1987. There were 250,000
people, not 400,000...
But not 17,000 either.
No. And it was the
same number as Martin Luther King brought [to his civil rights march in 1963].
All the Jews were very proud. And Reagan said to Gorbachev, “You see, my people
will never permit me to have a friendship with you” [unless you let Soviet Jews
go]. Next day, I came to Capitol Hill, and Jewish congressmen were coming up to
me and saying “This was our best day. All our colleagues are coming up to us and
saying we all have to learn from you, from the Jews.” So not only didn’t it
cause trouble. To the contrary.
And now we also know from Gorbachev’s
people and others how important it was. He had to be pushed, and this was really
the last straw.
And then a year after this, the big wave of aliya
started. And 400,000 came to Israel in two years.
And in total, until
More than one million.
And how many Jews are still in the Soviet
Approximately one million came to Israel, one million left for other
countries, and 850,000 eligible under the Law of Return are left in the former
And what’s the aliya rate now?
About 7,000 a year coming
here from the former Soviet Union.
And more going elsewhere?
wave is over. Germany is finished. Those who wanted to go to America, on the
whole, have gone.
In terms of your continuing challenge, then, the Jews
got out. And then stage two, integration. With a 25-year perspective, how
has integration gone?
Great. Of course, there are stories about unjust attitudes
of society to new immigrants. It’s largely nonsense. There will always be some
frictions. And of course there were many bureaucratic problems. There still
Housing for the elderly. The problem of conversion. But that’s a
problem of our society rather than of aliya, the question of what it means for
the Jewish state to be connected to the Jews of the world.
If you look at
the big picture, we had a 20 percent population influx. That’s like all of
France moving to America. The integration is unbelievably successful.
average quality of life [of these immigrants] is not higher or lower than the
average of all Israelis. Look at any hospital, at any university, at any hi-tech
firm. It sometimes seems like they conquered the country.
There are two
reasons for this.
One, that our society is very open to the idea of
aliya. For all the budget cuts over the years, there was never a question that
if Jews had to be helped to be brought here, this would happen.
Israel society had also been very paternalistic toward new immigrants, but this
aliya really changed this approach by taking its fate into its own hands. Even
when the establishment said no to Russian theater, Russian theater appeared
nonetheless, for example. And when it was realized that political tools were
needed to get things done, we created our party (Yisrael B’Aliya, which operated
from 1996 until it merged into the Likud in 2003). For the first time in
history, new immigrants entered the Knesset and the government.
importantly, the municipalities, where absorption really took place. And so they
became part of the decisionmaking process.
What of the country you left
behind? Looking back from 2011, do you feel that the Soviet Union has
democratized? Is the political climate there sliding back to totalitarianism?
Russia is still very far from Western democracy. This is especially clear in the
judicial system. The courts are not really independent. But those who say it’s
the same kind of dictatorship as the Soviet Union, that’s ridiculous. That was a
country that was ruled by the KGB. It had millions in the Gulag. There was an
army of informers.
Today, it’s a different reality.
there, then, is very appropriate to what’s happening now, in our region. People
in all cultures under dictatorship become double-thinkers.
They live in
fear. And they don’t want to live in fear. So when they have a choice to end
that, they make that choice.
This double-think, this state of fear, and
this desire to get out of fear, is exactly what we see today in the Middle East.
All people want to be free, but in the Soviet Union there were also large
numbers of nationalities and faiths which were almost erased and which people
wanted to live under. What’s happening now in Tunisia, in Egypt, it’s a much
more pure example.
In Tunisia, you don’t have any oppressed
nationalities. And there was no strong struggle between fundamentalists and
secularists. People didn’t take to the streets because of any of that. They
simply felt that there was a chance, finally, not to have to live under
dictatorship, and that’s what they wanted.
And that in turn showed the
double-thinkers of Egypt that maybe this was the moment for them, also, to go
into the streets. Now, in Egypt, people will say that there are problems with
the Copts, and everybody will say that there are problems with the Palestinians
and the Israelis [that generate public protest]. But those who went on the
demonstrations didn’t go out for the rights of the Coptic Church, and not
because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
What brought them to the
streets was that they didn’t want to continue living in a fear society, a
society in which people who stand up against Hosni Mubarak finish in prison.
People like my friend [human rights activist] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who said 10
years ago that Mubarak would put his son [Gamal] in power after him, went to
prison, and would still be there were it not for intervention of [the West, and
notably] president George W.
There are always very few
But the moment people stop feeling afraid, suddenly there are
millions of them.
What brought them out to the streets was the desire not
to have to live in a climate where what exactly prevailed?
When you have a
government which is unchanging, which is not very democratic, the people will
have many complaints. And when they express those complaints [in such regimes],
they get punished. That’s something that people don’t like. They have to live
under self-control, careful about what they say because they will be
In Egypt, five years ago, for example, the editor of a
newspaper was simply dragged out of the city and left naked and told not to dare
publish one more article against Mubarak. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, likewise, said on
the record that elections would be irrelevant, that the next president would be
He was arrested the next day.
That’s what happens
on the top. That means that, on the lower level, people must constantly control
themselves – what they can and can’t say. It’s a very uncomfortable life. If you
can get rid of it without risking your life, you try to do that.
that’s what people in Egypt are doing now?
Yes. And that’s my theory as
expressed in my book The Case for Democracy
: In every dictatorship, the longer
it exists, the more true believers turn into double-thinkers. Then, in the final
years of a dictatorship, practically everybody is a double-thinker.
That’s why I was saying, long ago, that Iran is absolutely ripe
for social revolution. Iran is actually a unique example where within one
generation, very quickly, almost all the true believers became
There is a very critical moment, which is called
revolution.When does it happen? When suddenly big masses of
double-thinkers – not one, not two – go over to dissent. It’s like boiling
water, when it reaches 100 degrees. Now, if that moment [is missed, and] it goes
back, it will immediately disappear.
That’s what happened in Iran [when
the demonstrations erupted and then faded after the 2009 elections]. Some of the
people – big student organizations, trade unions – felt that they could go to
And millions more were sitting and waiting, with all this
Facebook and Internet. But then, at that moment, the leader of the free world
indicated that for the US, engagement with the regime was more important than
changing the regime. And immediately, it all collapsed.
At that critical
moment, the president of the United States failed them?
Oh yes. And that’s what
I said to his closest advisers at the time – that I couldn’t understand how the
president of the United States could make such a speech. By the way, his speech
on the first anniversary of the revolution was great. But it was exactly one
year late. Because now, to take these doublethinkers and turn them into
dissidents again, well, it’s still there, but you need a more serious
The more cruel the dictatorship, the more difficult it is. In
Tunisia, there was a moment when the dictatorship became very weak and the
people felt very capable. That definitely impacted on Egypt. Dissent was big.
Mubarak looked weak, because of his health and other factors. And they rushed
And now, more than two weeks later? Has the president of the United
States got it right this time?
Much better. Though it’s easy to be better than
he was on Iran, which was terrible. I was in the United States in those first
days of protest in Egypt, and [Vice President] Biden said, of course Mubarak is
not a dictator.
My God, I thought! Millions of people are going to the
streets to say Mubarak is a dictator, and the leaders of America say he isn’t?!
But the next day, I see something happened in the White House, and Hillary
Clinton comes out with a better statement and President Obama says the right
The “right thing” being that the people of Egypt must determine
their own future?
Yes. Now the critical step, which has not yet been made but
which can be made, is the linkage. The free world is lucky here 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. In Prague, in 2007, (at a meeting of international
dissidents that Sharansky organized), Saad Eddin Ibrahim asked president Bush,
Why are you supporting Mubarak? Bush answered: Because otherwise there will be
the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim said: That’s a mistake. That
if you want the choice for Egyptians to be either Mubarak or the Muslim
Brotherhood, it will ultimately be the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ten years ago,
in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would have had 10% support. Today they say they
have 25 or 30%.
Who knows what it will be in 10 years if things don’t
People are unhappy. The only alternative to that unhappiness has
been the Muslim Brotherhood.
The free world has been helping to destroy
any democratic alternative.
So it is good that this is all happening now
in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood is not strong enough.
it is good that it is happening in an Egypt that gets the second biggest foreign
aid package from the United States [after Israel]. America has a lot of
leverage. A lot of linkage for any future Egyptian leader.
be the leader of Egypt, if he wants to solve problems, he will be very dependent
on the free world. He will not go to Iran for help.
If the free world
makes clear that our help is tied to democratic reforms, there is a chance
finally to start building a drive forward. This [untenable] pact between the
free world and a bunch of dictators ostensibly bringing us stability was not
broken by the free world. It was broken by the people in the streets. We have to
go with this.
This is the chance. I hope America will take it.
saw a White House that quickly, to the dismay of some in Israel, abandoned its
ally Mubarak and has also encouraged the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood
in the transition process. Is America getting this right?
America gets it right
that Mubarak is a very problematic ally and in the long run cannot be any kind
of ally. That’s true about all the dictators. At some moment, America will get
it about Saudi Arabia. That was always the most difficult case, even among those
[American presidents] who understood...
Like George Bush.
went further with the freedom agenda than any other.
It was great. He
really, idealistically believed in this. The point on which he disagreed with me
– although he told everyone to read my book – was over
[Contrary to what Bush believed], freedom and democracy
doesn’t mean elections. Democracy is about free elections and free
society. You must have free institutions.
He rushed into elections [for
the Palestinian parliament in 2006]. He forced Israel to accept Hamas as part of
the democratic process. Under all our agreements, we didn’t have to accept
Hamas, because it denies our right to exist. And it was a clearly
anti-democratic choice. He rushed to elections when the only choice for the
Palestinians was between the torturing thugs of Yasser Arafat, who we empowered,
and the terrorists from Hamas who were defending them. They voted for Hamas, an
absolutely nondemocratic element. That was [Bush’s] mistake.
Obama administration – instead of taking a principled position and supporting
any leadership which will support democratic reforms, and saying we will go
together with you through these reforms and help – the danger is [over the
readiness for] engaging: We will engage with whatever will come as a result.
We’ll make them part of the process. That’s exactly how Hizbullah in Lebanon,
step by step, became [ostensibly] legitimate partners.
On the day of the
elections in the Palestinian Authority, I was at the White House, saying to
them, this is your last opportunity.
In 24 hours, the election results
will be announced. You need to say that the results of the election have got
nothing to do with democracy. Otherwise the whole world will say, well, this is
Bush’s democracy: Hamas. And I was getting explanations: We’ll impose
conditions; they will not be a majority in the government, this and
Elaborate please on why elections alone do not constitute
democracy, on why you need free elections in a free society.
society means that there are institutions which guarantee to every individual
the opportunity to choose between different ways of life, and that their lives
will not be in danger, whatever they choose. In the Palestinian society, for
instance, they had Israel’s occupation. After that, they had Yasser Arafat, who
turned his Authority into a type of Mafia-run country where people were paying
him patronage. I can tell you, as a former minister of industry and trade who
tried to negotiate with Nabil Sha’ath on joint ventures to help their economy
and create more jobs, that they were not interested in anything that would make
their people more independent of them. They were interested only in how to
establish more control.
People were really fed up with this. That created
a really nasty situation.
Then, there was a transition to Abu Mazen
(Mahmoud Abbas) after Arafat died. And Bush asked me, is Abu Mazen a good guy or
a bad guy? I told him, I can prove to you that he’s a bad guy, because I read
his PhD (on the purported connections between the Nazis and Zionist leaders) in
Russian. And I can prove to you that he’s a good guy in comparison with Arafat,
because I saw them both at the negotiating table. But it doesn’t matter. He will
now depend fully on your policy. The Palestinian Authority is fully dependent on
the free world. America.
Europe. If your policy is clear linkage to
specific reforms, and you make plain that is there is no way Abu Mazen will get
any legitimacy, or any recognition, or any support otherwise, he will go with
In fact, Bush did put these demands to Abu Mazen, but he never made
the linkage explicit.
He didn’t say: If you don’t do this, these are the
And of course he didn’t have Europe behind him.
meant the Palestinians moved almost immediately (to elections) from a situation
in which they were still full of fear of the Arafat regime. In some Christian
villages, Hamas was deemed to be a better protector, so the Christians suddenly
became fundamentalists and voted for Hamas. That’s what you get when you have
elections in a fear society. [The elections reflect only] the balance of
In that balance of fear, at that moment, Hamas got 51%. At some
other moment, it would have got a different percent.
I wrote in my letter
of resignation from Arik Sharon’s government [in April 2005] that Hamas would
take over in Gaza [under his imminent disengagement plans]. That it would be bad
for Jews, bad for Palestinians, good for Hamas. Instead of disengagement, I
suggested making a transitional period, for three years of reforms, together
with the Americans, maybe together with the Egyptians.
See to it that, in
these years, a fully independent economy would be established, normal education,
dismantling of refugee camps and building good conditions for them, and of
course cooperation to fight terror.
Then, I suggested, after three or
four years like this, hold elections. Those would be free elections. People
would have different options and they would be protected, not afraid. And then you
would have partners to negotiate peace. You would have people who, whether they
hate you or not, whether they are anti-Semites or not, are elected because they
are concerned about the well-being of their people.
Is any of that
happening in the West Bank now with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad?
It’s not so
much because of Fayyad, but because [Quartet envoy Tony] Blair finally got it
and Europe got it a little. The so-called peace process is nonexistent and, I
believe, never existed, because it was built from the very beginning on this
idea of a strong dictator who will deliver peace to us. It was never a peace
process. It was how to organize our settlement with dictators.
because they are dictators, they will inevitably grow more and more hated by
Yet that was the idea of peace which was supported by
Europe, by America and by almost all Israelis. Bibi [Netanyahu] displayed more
understanding of the limits of the “peace with dictators.” But Arik was saying,
Good, Natan, that you convinced Bush of something that doesn’t
Your ideas [about the need for democracy] have nothing to do with
the Middle East, so don’t interfere too much.
In the West Bank there are
the first signs of a truly free economy. That’s good. There are no signs of
improvement on the education system. There are signs of independence, of forces
that are cooperating with us, on security.
These are the beginnings. If
this process, which must also include education, continues...
needed on education?
The official [PA] education is that Israel doesn’t have the
right to exist.
There is not one Palestinian leader who is ready to go to
a refugee camp and say, “Guys, we are going to have our own state. But you’re
not going back to Tel Aviv. Let’s start discussing other
Remember, I don’t know which meeting it was – there were so
many – when Olmert gives Abu Mazen generous proposals and asks him only to
recognize us as a Jewish, democratic state? And Bush is absolutely sure that Abu
Mazen will now say this, because he’s getting so much. And Abu Mazen says no.
Bush was surprised. Olmert was surprised. They were so sure that this generous
proposal would do it.
But Abu Mazen said it would be “a betrayal of our
people in the refugee camps” to recognize a Jewish, democratic state.
course, it’s not only a question of going to the refugee camps and saying it.
You also have to start building normal lives for them. You can’t keep them in
the refugee camps in order to use them as a weapon against us.
are the first sparks. But it’s a long process. That’s why all these
declarations, that we can reach peace in one year, or half a year, or two years,
mean nothing. That’s just going back to the same idea of engaging with somebody,
finding somebody with whom we can sign an agreement.
The idea that Abu
Mazen is fully dependent on the IDF, and the hope that somehow he’ll be so
dependent, he’ll agree to sign an agreement.
need is to build peace from bottom-up. And bottom-up means democratic reforms.
But I was always told, “Forget about it. It’s not for the Arab
And now it’s coming from the other end. Not from
the peace process at all. Here, people are coming and demanding to build from
the bottom, without any connection [to the peace process]. This is a great
So how now, in the Egyptian context, should the West be acting?
What signals should be sent. You’re the leader of the free world, what do you
If I was in the Senate, I would immediately pass a law maintaining US
assistance to Egypt on condition that 20% of it goes to democratic
What’s needed is real linkage.
The desire of the people
has to be heard. It’s not up to us to decide whether it will be Omar Suleiman or
Mohamed ElBaradei or someone else [who takes over]. Whoever it is, whoever is
the leader, won’t want to depend on Iran, or even on Saudi Arabia so much. So
they have to listen to the free world, and after all, Egypt is between the free
world and Muslim fundamentalists.
And the entire free world has to say,
“We are ready to help you, we are ready to support you, we are ready to be with
you, but on condition that: first, there is no persecution for freedom of speech
and for free press and so on; second, there is an independent economy; third,
there is a tolerant, pluralistic education system where people can choose how
they want to learn, what they want to learn; and, finally, that agreements that
were signed with the neighbors about stability in the region have to be
The entire free world should say that only those who accept
these principles, and accept the principles of democratic change, should be
permitted to participate and be empowered by the process. If the Muslim Brothers
genuinely accept everything, then they can be part of it. But if, whatever they
say, they continue in their mosques to speak about the war against Israel, or
they declare that democracy will not determine what to do, then they cannot be a
part of it.
At this moment, it is still possible for the free world to do
So you think there is an extraordinary opportunity now, and that
America has sent at least some of the right signals?
Yes. I think there was no
opportunity as long as there was a strong belief, almost a unanimous belief,
among the leaders of the free world that only strong dictators in the Arab world
can bring us stability, and that only strong dictators are our allies, and that
this can continue more or less forever.
There was no chance.
chance of what?
No chance of reform and also of a peace process. The moment this
pact between democracies and dictators is broken, then there’s a chance for new
concepts, for a new approach. It depends on us now. On the Arab side, they made
their stand. The people made their stand, showing that “we’re here,” that “those
who thought freedom is not for us, well, it is for us.” Now it is for the
leaders of the free world to show that they really believe in this for
To set out the framework?
As Obama said in his inauguration speech,
a fist to dictators and an open hand to those who want reform.
declared, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the
silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that
we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.)
And what if,
three steps ahead, Egypt, other Arab countries, the Palestinians, amazingly
enough, with correct signals and assistance from the West, do go through this
process? But that it then turns out that the will of the people, in a genuine,
democratic society, is to wipe out the State of Israel? That that’s what the
We should never stop, not for a moment, relying on the strength of
the IDF, but this is the only chance [for a true change]. For all the so-called
peace process, we are more and more dependent on the IDF... on our capabilities
in war. I don’t think that we have to weaken. But the only chance to create
something whereby we’ll be less dependent on our military power is to give a
chance to democratic reforms.
And I think it’ll succeed, because I think,
in the end, the majority of Palestinians don’t want to continue living in
refugee camps. They got closer to the ideas of the free world, a free economy,
more education, than did many others, because of their proximity to Israel. But
the fact is, they were never given the opportunity to choose. In 1993, we
brought Arafat from Tunis, who said, “Now we’ll be a dictatorship.”
Israel shouldn’t be panicking as it looks at the region now? We should be saying
well done to the Arab masses for telling the West that they don’t want to live
This is the moment for those Israelis who believe that peace
has to be built bottom-up. They have to prepare for that chance. Israelis like
me, like [Minister Moshe] “Bogie” Ya’alon. There are not many. This is a great
moment. Let’s try to use it.
For those who didn’t believe this, for those
who believe that all these ideas of freedom, as Arik Sharon was telling me, have
nothing to do with the Middle East, this is the moment to think again. Maybe
something was wrong with this idea of keeping these people forever under a
control, which was always working against us, because it was the Muslim
Brotherhood who were coming after it, whether in Iran, the Palestinian
Authority, in Egypt. We hoped to have great peace agreements with all these
dictators, but then the dictators who have signed peace agreements will be
replaced by Muslim Brothers.
Maybe this is the moment to try to put our
trust in freedom. After all, we’re not losing anything. The Muslim Brothers,
they’ll come anyway [if things continue as they have been].
Here we have,
maybe, the chance that they will not come.
Israel has to be concerned. I
don’t want to dismiss all these feelings. All the recent changes have
strengthened the fundamentalists...
In Lebanon, Iran, Gaza,
We also have to be concerned because our best partners are
Europe demands that we
negotiate with Hamas. Then they demand that we accept a Lebanese government with
50% Hizbullah. Then it will be fully Hizbullah. And then US leaders can very
well say, “Well, for us, engagement with the regime is more important than who
is in this regime.”
So, yes, there are reasons for concern.
a small country. We can be destroyed in one day if we lower our guard. But, on
the other hand, while we continue to be on guard, let’s be glad that what’s
happening now on the Arab street is happening before the Muslim Brothers control
the entire Middle East, and that could be the direction. Let’s be glad that it
is happening in countries which are still very dependent on the free world. And
let’s try to see whether, finally, we can find new ways for a peace process, and
not only a process that depends fully on one thing – on the strength of the
So now let’s bring this conversation all the way back to the
beginning. Is what’s happening now in the Middle East something like what
unfolded with the collapse of the Soviet Union?
It’s not that simple. As I said,
here it’s a more pure experiment in democracy. There, it wasn’t only an
experiment in democracy. It was all these nations and faiths, and so the moment
there was freedom, the people could go back to their nations and their faiths.
It all fell apart. It fell apart very quickly. The world was astonished at how
this communist empire fell apart.
Here, you have a much more pure
experiment about the power of democracy. The subtitle of my book is “The Power
of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” That’s what this is.
the role of the free world is that there must be real cooperation with this
desire of people not to live in fear. Whoever these people are.
they are anti-Semites and grew up in the traditional thinking of killing Jews.
It’s not about us and them. It’s about them and their leaders.
moment, almost everything depends on the position the free world takes. The fact
that some leaders of the free world, and some leading journalists, are coming to
us and saying, “This is the time. This is the time to make concessions,” simply
shows that they really don’t understand what’s going on. I mean, to whom to make
concessions? The people in the streets of Egypt, or to dictators whose days are
numbered? This is the moment, not to speak of concessions with Abu Mazen, but to
start building bottom-up peace, and finally bring democracy to the
If the free world helps the people on the streets, and
turns into the allies of these people instead of being the allies of the
dictators, then there is a unique chance to build a new pact between the free
world and the Arab world. And we, Israel, will be among the beneficiaries,
simply because these people will then be dealing with their real problems.