NEW YORK – An irony about Natan Sharansky, the legendary Soviet refusenik turned Israeli politician, is that his treatise on “free” and “fear” societies had more influence on American conservatives than those in his adopted homeland. President George W. Bush has said the 2004 book Sharansky co-authored, “The Case for Democracy,” inspired his second inaugural address. Yet in Israel, the former dissident’s ideas are politely ignored.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proves this point. A book about his foreign policy could be called “The Case for Dictatorship.” He has expanded Israel’s quiet security partnership with the Saudi royal family and is warming ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has met with four times in the last year. These days Netanyahu is said to talk more frequently with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — the dictator who unseated an Islamist who won Egypt’s first free election— than he does with President Barack Obama.
From a purely diplomatic perspective, this would count as a triumph of realpolitik. And one would expect someone like Sharansky to scoff at such accomplishments as fool’s gold. After all, he correctly predicted the cascade of revolutions that came to the Middle East in 2011.
Yet when I met with Sharansky recently at his office at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, he was more understanding of Netanyahu’s foreign policy than I thought he would be.
“Israel is in a special position,” he told me. “It is not like France or the United States. Israel is in a permanent struggle for its survival. The cooperation with el-Sissi in the Sinai is not a matter of ideology, it is a question of physical survival.”
Of the Arab Spring, Sharansky said that the Arab world is still building the civil societies that make democracy possible, even if some countries have experienced revolution. On Saudi Arabia in particular, Sharansky’s view was that it’s unreasonable for Israel to be more principled in its opposition to the kingdom than the U.S. “If Israel for the first time has any chance to find some understanding with Saudi Arabia, then I don’t oppose it,” he said.
All of this sounds like a far cry from what Sharansky wrote in the book that so inspired Bush. Back then, he and co-author Ron Dermer, who is now Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and a close adviser to the Netanyahu, wrote, “When freedom’s skeptics argue today that freedom cannot be ‘imposed’ from the outside, or that the free world has no role to play in spreading democracy around the world, I cannot but be amazed.”
Sharansky and Dermer did not make the case explicitly for regime change, though they defended the invasion of Iraq. Rather, they argued that the free world can coerce dictators to open their societies by tying aid, recognition and trade to how these rulers treat their citizens.
Sharansky’s contempt for fear-based societies comes from experience. From 1977 to 1986, he endured Soviet prisons and work camps for the alleged crime of providing to the U.S. government the names of refuseniks, or Jews in the former Soviet Union who were not allowed to emigrate to Israel. Sharansky also translated into English the work of nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, his personal hero whose portrait hangs on a wall in his office.
Today, Sharansky has mixed feelings about Russia. On the one hand he said the hope that a democratic Russia would emerge out of the ashes of the Soviet Union has evaporated. “I have been in touch with the new democratic dissidents and they have nothing good to say about Russia,” he said.
But Sharansky praised Putin for his treatment of Russian Jews. “Putin told me in 2000 he believes it was a big mistake of previous Russian leaders to not allow Jewish communities to thrive; since then he has disappointed us on many things, but he has stuck to this,” Sharansky said. “This should not be taken for granted that the leader of Russia is supportive of the Jewish community and the connection between the Jews of Russia and the state of Israel.”
At the end of the day, Sharansky said, Israel is too small and threatened to lead the fight against dictatorships alone. This should be a job for the American president. “I cannot blame my government for the fact that the free world is playing less of a role in leading in the Middle East,” he said. “So we have to make the best of it.”
And while Sharansky said he’d like to see Obama and his successor emphasize human rights, he also conceded that in the midst of a global war against radical Islam, Western leaders must fight along with the allies they have. Twice in our conversation, the former dissident brought up the democratic nations’ alliance with Stalin against Hitler.
But Sharansky also warned that Israeli and American leaders make a mistake if they believe their relationships with dictators will last. “When we have al-Qaida in the Sinai and he is fighting with us, of course el-Sissi is our ally at this moment,” he said. “At the same time, as someone who puts in jail every dissident from the Muslim brothers to the most liberal activists, I have no doubt he will fall in the years to come if he doesn’t change.” Sharansky knows of what he speaks. He’s a former political prisoner who has had the pleasure of seeing the regime that jailed him collapse.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast.