Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Sunday, February 27, 2005
Last post of the night: what oh what are we going to do with Natan Sharansky?

When I was in junior high school (I went to a small, mostly secular Jewish day school through eighth grade; remind me to tell you about it some time), our principal used to bus us over to the Soviet mission in Riverdale to chant slogans while we watched Rabbi Avi Weiss chain himself to the bars of the mission in protest against restrictions on Soviet Jewish emigration, and specifically in protest against the imprisonment of Natan (then Anatole) Sharansky. I remember the thrill when he was finally released and came to Israel, and how proud I was as he began to make his mark in Israeli politics.

I was particularly pleased with his positioning within the Israeli political spectrum. Sharansky headed a party, Yisrael B'Aliyah ("Israel in Immigration" or "Israel on the Ascent" - "aliyah" is the Hebrew term for moving to Israel to live, but it literally means "ascent" because you "go up" to Israel and "descend" whenever you leave the country) that was focused on Soviet immigrants (and, to some extent, other immigrants) but the agenda was always broader than that and got ever broader with time. And that agenda was both liberal in the European sense of advocating greater economic freedom and progressive in the early 20th century sense of seeking to make democracy work better and cleaner. He was a strong critic of the proportional representation system that has so crippled Israeli democracy. He had solid ideas about how to clean up Israel's very big problems with corruption and organized crime (Israel is known as one of the worst nexuses for money-laundering, and, not unrelatedly, as one of the key links in a global Russian mafia that extends from Moscow to Netanya to Brighton Beach and beyond; the problem has gotten bad enough that in the last election it appeared that mafia elements had gained a substantial foothold within the leadership of the Likud Party). And his positions on security, national and religious issues were all centrist: he favored a tough line on terrorism but flexibility on ultimate borders (the same line as the centrist Shinui party), and he favored retaining a religious establishment contoured broadly as it is now but with important adjustments to reflect the reality of Israeli society (such as Russian immigrants who are part Jewish but not Jews according to religious law, who cannot be buried anywhere in Israel because all cemetaries are under sectarian religious authority). I thought he had the makings of a future Prime Minister, possibly a great one.

And then, he did two things that struck me as very questionable.

The first was voting against Sharon's plan for a Gaza pullout. Sharansky cannot plausibly take the line that Israel intends to hold on to Gaza forever because it is part of the historic Land of Israel (forget whether that's true or not; whether it is or it isn't, that's not Sharansky's ideology). So the question I have to ask him is: what purpose do settlements serve? Can he really say, with a straight face, that they are an enhancement to Israel's security? Or does he favor staying in Gaza - not just continuing to fight terrorism there, which may or may not be necessary, but continuing an Israeli *civilian* presence there - because to withdraw under fire is anathema? I which case I would make three arguments: first, that it's not obvious the firing is ever going to stop (it has certainly gotten continually worse since the 1970s); second, that Israel's basic legitimacy is undermined by the blurring of the distinction between sovereign Israel and the territories, lending plausibility to the claim that a Jewish state is ipso facto a racist idea; and third, that Israel is losing this particular game precisely because, having no plausible alternative to a negotiated withdrawal, and no way to win the war (that is to say: no definition of victory that is not based on wishful thinking), Israel comes to "need" a negotiated settlement more than the Palestinians do, which results in political pressure for settlements that are deeply unwise (see, e.g., the Oslo Accords).

But it may be worse than that. Sharansky's position on Gaza may derive from a deeper stupid decision on his part: the decision to become an ideologue of what we're now calling the neoconservative persuasion, which is not what I considered him to be until his new book came out. Sharansky may believe that it is impossible for Israel to have peace with its neighbors until they are all liberal democracies, and this may really be his reason for opposing withdrawal from Gaza.

This is nuts on several levels.

First: Israel's peace with Egypt, cold as it is, has been a huge success for Israel and for Egypt. Israel rid itself of its most dangerous enemy and the threat of a two-front war. Egypt got back all its lost territory and cemented an alliance with the United States. Sharansky, presumably, would not have signed the Camp David Accords had he been in Begin's chair because Sadat - a true patriot who gave his life for his country - had not been democratically elected. That's crazy, no?

Second: how does he somehow go from believing that Israel will not have permanent peace until the region is liberal and democratic (which may be true for all I know) to concluding that therefore Israel should not withdraw from Gaza? When your tactical decisions can all be deduced from your ideological premises, your ideology has gotten way, way too rigid. Do the specifics of Israel's troop deployments also follow logically from first principles about peaceful democracies and warlike autocracies? Withdrawing from Gaza might be the right tactical move in a war that will still be going on, overtly or subtly, for many generations. Sharansky at least has to consider that perspective.

Third: doesn't Sharansky realize that his premise undermines the premise of Zionism itself? There are, admittedly, a number of varieties of Zionism running around. But none of them would coexist easily with the notion that Israel could never be secure until the region was transformed into a haven of liberal democracy. For many people, Zionism means the belief that Jews need somewhere where they will be secure, safe from pogroms and Nazis and so forth. But if Sharansky is right, it would have made more sense to emigrate to the Anglo-Saxon world than consider a national home in the heart of a region that because of its *nature* was going to remain hostile. Labor Zionism? Well, Sharansky's too much of a European liberal to want to support that anyhow; the old Labor Zionists thought Jews would, ultimately, be making common cause with the Arab masses against the forces of capitalism (to the extent that they thought about the Arabs at all). Revisionist Zionism? Jabotinsky thought the only way Jews would win a state was by force, but he did think they could win it. Sharansky would seem to be implying that Jabotinsky was wrong: it is, ultimately, up to the *Arabs* whether Israel gets a state, because Israel's war with them will continue not until they accept they are beating but *until they change fundamentally.* Religious Zionism? I hate to break it to Sharansky, but Rav Kook was not a liberal democrat.

Sharansky would respond to all of the above with optimism: people everywhere want freedom, so the Arabs want freedom, so a strategy of betting on freedom to solve Israel's problems with the Arabs is a better bet than anyone thinks.

That's a nice story, but it has some holes in it. Martin Kramer points them out better than I could; he knows the region better than most people, certainly including me, and he's generally considered "on board" in terms of Israel's tough approach to terrorism and Bush's approach to our own war on terrorism. I don't know if he's considered a neocon or not, but he's certainly been sympathetic. So check out what he has to say.

I would add only this to Kramer's analysis: tyranny is not in any way obsolete outside of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Without stretching the point at all, China has over a billion people and however that society is changing, it is not becoming a democracy. More to the point, Russia - the land of Sharansky's birth, so recently liberated by its own democratic heroes from the Soviet nightmare - is not so much slipping back into dictatorship as eagerly embracing a "strong hand" and a "Russian way" as the response to Russian's continuing and deepening problems. If Sharansky, a Russian, looking at recent events can talk about freedom's inevitable triumph, when freedom is to a meaningful extent being rejected in his own native country, how much credence can we give to his understanding of the trend lines in the Middle East, his adopted home?

Israel needs liberals, in the sense of people who understand and appreciate freedom and democracy deep down. Israel's founders did not hold those values in the innermost chambers of their hearts, and even the liberals among the Revisionists had a limited appreciation for the implications of their liberalism for the "Arab problem" or for how Israel's government should be structured. But Israel is a basically liberal and democratic society, which is precisely why she needs people who understand these things in their bones, and can push for reforms that will make their society work better and more justly. The way I put it sometimes is that Israel could really use someone who is a hybrid of Jabotinsky and Ahad Ha'am. I thought Sharansky might be such a person (and even if he isn't, he certainly is a liberal in his bones, which is plenty) and that's why I thought he would be so valuable to Israel. But if he spends his time talking about how *other* people need to become - and, inherently, will want to become - liberal and democratic, then he'll be wasting his formidable talents. There are plenty of Israelis to teach, Anatole; you don't need to go abroad in search of monsters to reform. About them, I wish you'd be a little more realistic.