Interview: 'A dream is not a strategy'

Retiring MK Natan Sharansky is a man who faces his challenges one decade at a time.

October 20, 2006 03:36
Interview: 'A dream is not a strategy'

natan sharansky 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])


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He endured nearly a decade in Soviet prisons from Moscow to Siberia as a prisoner of Zion who was jailed for the crime of wanting to emigrate to Israel. He then went - in his words - "from hell to heaven," when he arrived in Jerusalem in 1986. In his first decade in Israel, Sharansky served as president of the Zionist Forum, an umbrella organization of former Soviet activists. He was elected to the Knesset in 1996 as head of the Yisrael Ba'aliya party that he founded and he has served for a decade in various cabinet ministries. Anyone who followed this pattern should not have been surprised when sources close to Sharansky revealed last week that he had decided to quit politics after 10 years in the Knesset. Sharansky will officially leave the Knesset on November 15, and take up a post as the head of the new Institute for International and Middle East Studies at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based academic research institute. But though his life is characterized by decade-long shifts, his objectives remain the same: Zionism, democracy and human rights. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised Sharansky for this in a speech at the opening meeting of the Knesset's winter session on Monday. "I wish to say in this house - but perhaps to the entire State of Israel - that there is no one like him in this house," Olmert said. "Few of those who served here played such an important and central role in the modern history of our people as this man, Natan Sharansky." Olmert said that even though Sharansky had become an opposition MK, he is glad that Sharansky "continues to serve as a man who symbolizes great pride and immense courage as a Jew and as a freedom fighter." The speech turned heads and immediately caused speculation that Sharansky's next post would be the presidency. One senior Kadima official close to Olmert suggested Monday that Sharansky might be the prime minister's ideal candidate. In his cramped Knesset office on Tuesday, Sharansky used this interview - his first since deciding to quit politics - with The Jerusalem Post to rule out running for the presidency; advise Olmert on how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin; and give readers a taste of his strategy for handling the Iranian threat, which will be the main focus of his research in his new position. Why not run for president? When American Jews have asked me why I don't run for prime minister or president, I have said that if a million Jews come from America, I will be prime minister. Nefesh B'Nefesh is making progress in bringing people, so you never know. But I want to make it clear that I am not a candidate. If I were still in the Knesset when the vote took place, I would definitely vote for Reuven Rivlin. He is a 10th-generation Israeli descended from the Vilna Gaon; he has strong Zionist beliefs; he is a principled person; and he was a good manager as a Knesset candidate. As for me, I made my decision to accept a challenging proposal to be head of the Institute for International and Middle East Studies. I feel that strategic thinking is what is lacking in Israel. I want to spend some years of my life building strategies - not only for Israel but for the free world and its confrontations with dictatorships. What should Olmert [have told] Russian President Vladimir Putin? That Israel has had extensive dialogue with the Russians about the dangers of leakage of Russian technology to Iran. You, President Putin, happened to be right when you said that it's not only Russian technologies, but in fact more advanced Western ones, that are helping produce missiles. But you agreed then that it was a danger. Today everyone understands that the danger is to the entire free world, not only to Israel. They have a leader who is exactly like Hitler, who doesn't mask his intentions. We understand and respect your desire to see Russia as one of the leaders of the world. But as one who is concerned about the future of the world and the position of Russia, you have to be part of the international front [against the nuclearization of Iran.] In the past, you had to be concerned about not losing Iranian economic markets. But now, it's a critical moment. Everybody else in the world - the US, France, Holland, Germany and England, who also took part in leaking these technologies - now all understand the importance of a united stand. It's very important for freedom in the world. Are you disappointed with Russia's behavior? We have a lot of criticism about Russia's behavior. We have to be very frank, open and uncompromising on some of these points. As I see it, it's not that Russia changed its attitude to Israel or to Jews. Russia is in a much more tense relationship with America. It feels America doesn't recognize it as an equal superpower, and it wants to prove itself. This affects its policies toward Iran, and to some extent toward Hizbullah, Hamas and Syria. We are victims of all this. But we shouldn't look for excuses for Russia. We should make it very clear that it is extremely dangerous for us, and that we cannot keep on having good relations while Russia has this clear policy of open support of our enemies who want to destroy us. You've met Putin several times. What is your view of him? He understands better than all his predecessors how the West works. He decided that to bring Russia back to the status of a superpower, he cannot be in confrontation with the West, but rather in cooperation with it. And that Israel and the Jews have to be part of this alliance and cooperation. Many things have changed in terms of Russia's outlook on dealing with freedom of the press and this strategic balance. They probably decided that before they develop equal relations with the West, they probably have to strike relations with all the enemies of the West, so their own position would be stronger. Some say that by preventing the world from stopping the nuclearization of Iran, Russia is endangering the world as we know it. Would you agree? We have had a dialogue with Russia for 10 years. I was the first minister who visited Russia in January 1997. There were many meetings that were heavily covered by the media, but there were a few meetings that weren't noticed by the press. When I met with then foreign minister Yvgeny Primakov, I brought proof of missile technology going from Russia to Iran. I shared with him military intelligence. He asked that I come back for a second meeting. He said he had the information checked and that we were right. He gave me their information and came back with a little bit more. But he said it wasn't the government that was responsible for the leaks, and that they would take steps. I have had many conversations since then about this subject, and the Russians did take steps, but the leaks never stopped. There were material interests involved, so [stopping the leaks] wasn't easy. Former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin explained: "The West tries to remove us from economic markets. When we stop, they go there. Putin said that one day, when all the information is known, we would see that most of the advanced nuclear technology that reached Iran is not from Russia." True, most of it came through Pakistan and was developed by British, Dutch and German firms. But Russia has fears that are at times greatly exaggerated. They have a very dangerous idea that by not cooperating with America in the case of Iran, they would be showing America why they have to be taken seriously. That's the Russian game. We have reached the point at which [countries must decide] whether they want to play a serious role in the future of the free world. [The policies of Russia] are definitely not constructive. Will the US attack Iran? Should it? I agree with US Senator John McCain, who said it would be terrible to attack Iran, but worse for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Though President Bush didn't say he was going to attack Iran. What's important is that the democratic opposition in Iran is bigger than that of any country since Poland. It is smaller than it was a year ago, but if the free world would clearly say that it is behind elections, it would give the opposition tremendous power and changes would happen. The Americans said that whatever the results of the election, they would accept them. On this we disagree. But the very fact that the democratic agenda exists - that it is debated in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria - is because of Bush. Is there an Iranian Sharansky? I just met an Iranian student leader who spent some years in prison and recently escaped to America. He said he wanted to see me when I was in Washington. He is enthusiastic that people like me believe in democracy in Iran. But he believes that the West will say - as it did with the Palestinians - that [Iran's leaders] are not good guys, but nevertheless it has to deal with the regime. What needs to be done to improve Israel's international public relations effort? It's important to build a case for Israel on campuses, to show our belief in democracy, human rights and Zionism. The problem with our hasbara has not been a lack of talented people, but due to the concept that because we are no longer in the Diaspora, we no longer have to explain ourselves. The need for public relations is now understood much better. But let's not place all the blame on ourselves. We are in this position because of double-standards and a lack of moral clarity. Why is Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party succeeding in obtaining votes from non-immigrant voters where Yisrael Ba'aliya failed? How long can you call Israel Beiteinu a Russian party? Lieberman started with support from immigrants, but his party's issues are Arabs and changing the electoral system. Yisrael Ba'aliya played a unique historical role in opening the doors for Russian immigrants and making them part of the decision-making process. I said in 1998 that if we succeeded, in five years the party would no longer exist. That happened in 2003. Is that why you're leaving politics? My leaving politics has to do with the absence of strategic thinking. This has been going on since Oslo. A dream is not a strategy. Oslo brought a dream of a new Middle East. Barak thought he could quickly force a plan through. He thought there would be peace or there would be an easy war because the world would be with us. Then the Road map sacrificed Israel's principles in order to curry favor with the State Department. Disengagement was yet another attempt to release Israel from international pressure. All these moves were done without strategic thinking. That's why, when Shalem discussed forming a center for strategic studies, I thought it was a great idea. In Israel, it's hard to bring strategic elements to decision-making. Maybe it doesn't have to be done from the direction of politics. It should be done from another direction. Is your departure a statement about the Knesset's ineffectiveness? No. Many things have been done in the Knesset that I am very proud of. You can't say the system isn't working. One million Jews came and were absorbed. I encourage anyone who has enough talent and patience to go into politics. Your new institute will focus on what challenges the West is facing? What are they? The challenges of Israel are the challenges of the West. We are lucky that our founding fathers defined Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and since then we have debated on what comes first. I always believed that nothing from one has to be sacrificed for the other. One main threat is from fundamentalist regimes. The other is that in Europe, there are people who say that they don't need nationalism anymore. There are post-modernists who say nations are a thing of the past, and the state they want dismantled first is Israel. The strength of the West lies in strengthening democracy and appealing to the people to build nation states. Israel, for instance, has no chance to survive if it is not a proud, Zionist, Jewish and very democratic state. This is a formula for the world as well. What can be done about the Palestinian issue? For now, we have to fight terror and make up for mistakes, like permitting free access to arms. My proposal to Sharon in 2002, after Bush outlined his doctrine of democracy, was about a transitional period of joint American, Jordanian and Egyptian control of the Palestinian Authority. During this transitional period, the refugee camps would be eliminated, a free economy would be encouraged, the official hate propaganda would be stopped and terrorist organizations would be banned. After 3-5 years, when Palestinian lives start to really change, and they stop living in fear that if they say the wrong thing they will be killed, only then should there be elections, because then Palestinian leaders will have mutual interests to help their own people. Sharon never took these ideas seriously. The refugee camps are the litmus test: Never before has there been this cynical situation of four generations living in refugee camps. It's unbelievable. The UN created and financed them, and Yasser Arafat encouraged people living there to think their only way out is to go back to Haifa. I asked the PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas after disengagement whether there would be fewer people in refugee camps in Gaza after the withdrawal, and he said no. Where do you see yourself and the country a decade from now? I am always in the same place, living through the exodus of the Jewish people. I am lucky that I could play an active role in this exodus. I am dealing with the same issues that interested and inspired me as a dissident: Zionism and Judaism on the one hand, and democracy and human rights on the other. As for what position I will hold in a decade, ask me in 9.5 years. As for our people, 20 years ago I went from hell to heaven. Israel is a heaven in need of renovations. I have no doubt that in 10 years, Israel will be the country where a majority of Jews live, with a vibrant economy and democracy. I also believe that it will no longer be the only democracy in the Middle East. Ori Raphael contributed to this report

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