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Business News/ News / A Refusenik in a Country at War
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A Refusenik in a Country at War

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Israeli statesman Natan Sharanksy on the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, the Palestinians’ prospects for democracy, Ukraine and the Russia-Iran axis.

An Israeli politician and human-rights advocate, Mr. Sharansky was once the best-known refusenik—a name for Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate to Israel. Premium
An Israeli politician and human-rights advocate, Mr. Sharansky was once the best-known refusenik—a name for Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate to Israel.

‘Avital! Avital! Avital!" Natan Sharansky calls out his wife’s name in quick and anxious succession, the last time in a loud bellow. Minutes into our interview by Zoom from his house in Jerusalem, he’s worried his grandchildren haven’t had lunch. “Because of the war, everybody is crazy," he says. “My son-in-law is in the war, so all the grandkids are here"—eight in total, ranging in age from 1 to 13, the children of his daughters, Hannah and Rachel. “It’s a good time to fuel yourself on family love."

An Israeli politician and human-rights advocate, Mr. Sharansky was once the best-known refusenik—a name for Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate to Israel. In February 1986, he became “the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev." He served as a cabinet minister in every Israeli government from 1996 to 2005, including a stint as Ariel Sharon’s deputy prime minister from 2001 to 2003.

Before emigrating to Israel, he spent nine years in Soviet prisons accused of treason. He’s 75 but jokes that he’s 66: “My nine years in prison don’t count." He also quips that between his “nine years in prison and nine years in government, my years in prison were easier." In 2009 he rebuffed an invitation to join the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “I was in four governments, and I resigned twice. I was in four prisons, and I never resigned. It shows there is something wrong with me in politics."

The grandchildren are fed. The war has come home, literally, to the Sharanskys, as it has to almost every household in Israel. “I just met a woman whose four sons are in the army," he says. “It was a big mobilization today—everybody who’s from 20 to 38." Israel is united in tragedy and resolve. “Maybe that’s what makes it a little bit easier to overcome this awful pogrom."

In Mr. Sharansky’s opinion, Hamas’s atrocities eclipse “even the worst Russian pogroms" of the 19th century. This was also “the first pogrom in history which was all on the internet. They were making pictures and sending them out immediately." Hamas terrorists were proud of this, he stresses. “It says something to us that even the Nazis tried to hide their killing from the world. Here they tried to show to all the world what they were doing to these Jews." They believed it would “win sympathy and support from one part of the world, and understanding from the other part."

The former part is the Islamic world—including Muslim populations in Europe—where massive crowds came out in support for “the Palestinians." The latter part is the Western left. Mr. Sharansky finds the reaction on American campuses “mind-boggling": “A pogrom occurs, and the first reaction is that Israel is to be blamed. They see the most barbaric pogrom since the Holocaust as the beginning of Palestinian liberation."

Anti-Israel demonstrations intensified after a deadly blast at a hospital in Gaza on Oct. 17. Hamas blamed Israel instantly and much of the world was quick to accept the word of a terrorist organization, some holding to this view even after proof emerged that the damage was caused by an errant rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists.

Why does Israel never get the benefit of the doubt? “The simplest answer is to say that that’s anti-Semitism," Mr. Sharansky says. He accepts “legitimate criticism" and notes that “Israel is a free country." But he says Israel is seldom denounced in good faith but instead subjected to the “three Ds": demonization, double standards and delegitimization.

Add to this the ideology that holds “the oppressed are always right, and that resistance to oppressors is always legitimate." Intellectuals, academics and college leaders “refuse to call the most primitive act of anti-Semitism by its name," and instead dignify the Hamas murders as a form of “anticolonial" struggle.

But aren’t the Palestinians oppressed? “Well, I would say that Palestinian people are oppressed by the ruthless dictators and terrorists who rule over them. And the free world—including some of my leaders, in my own country—are accomplices. If there is one crime against the Palestinians to which Israel should plead guilty," Mr. Sharansky says, “it is the Oslo Agreement"—the peace accord Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in 1993.

Mr. Sharansky abhors Oslo. Still regarded in some circles as the touchstone of Israeli-Palestinian compromise, the agreement handed control of Palestinian land to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority in the belief that he would be able to subdue Hamas. “I’m not against compromises with the Palestinians," Mr. Sharansky says. “I’ve said I’m for a two-state solution from the moment I came to Israel. I want Palestinians to have the same rights as I, but they should never have an opportunity to destroy me."

At Oslo, he says, Israel foisted “a ruthless dictator on the Palestinians. We told them, “Like it or not, he will be your leader.’ With [Bill] Clinton and all the free world, we gave Arafat the power to destroy all the beginnings of freedom of the Palestinian people and helped build a generation of haters." Mr. Sharansky says it’s “absolutely ridiculous" that a “fifth generation" of Palestinians lives in refugee camps, but he says “their leaders are to blame. And the free world, that gives money to these leaders—a lot of money."

Mr. Sharansky is certain that Israel’s security can be assured only by a free Palestinian society, in which people “enjoy a normal life, normal freedom, the opportunity to vote and have their own human rights." In “The Case for Democracy" (2004), he wrote: “I remain convinced that a neighbor who tramples on the rights of its own people will eventually threaten the security of my people." The book was published a year before Israel “disengaged" from the Gaza Strip, withdrawing the army and forcibly uprooting Jews who had settled there.

That decision led Mr. Sharansky to resign from Sharon’s cabinet. Arafat had failed to tame Hamas, and Mr. Sharansky believed Gaza would be taken over by the terrorist group, whose ideology is “suicide for the sake of destroying the state of Israel." He resigned before disengagement took effect, because he didn’t want to “take responsibility for the fact that we, by our own hands, were creating the biggest terrorist base in the Middle East, and that missiles will come one day to Ashkelon," a coastal city less than 10 miles from the Gaza border.

“The threat was so clear to me," Mr. Sharansky recalls. “But Sharon told me, ‘No, we simply put up a wall. And if [Hamas] dare to make one shot, we will simply kill all of them.’ To this day, I don’t know if he believed in it or not." Mr. Sharansky recalls that Sharon told him that “all the world will be with us for 10 years after this. I said, ‘Arik, you don’t have 10 years. Maybe you have 10 days.’ "

In the event, Hamas won legislative elections in Gaza in 2006 and displaced the Palestinian Authority by force the next year. Although Mr. Sharansky’s view appears to have been vindicated, he doesn’t think “now is the right time for me to say that I was saying this or that. It’s too long ago. But what was disengagement? Leaving the territory, and leaving it to the terrorists. Nobody in Israel would be for a new disengagement today." After the atrocities of Oct. 7, “all of Israeli society understands that there can be no compromise with Hamas—or we will survive or they will survive."

What now? “After we finish Hamas, of course," he says he would push for some of the measures he advocated at the time of disengagement. “You don’t want to control these two million people, right? We have to go back to what I was proposing before, that we have to build some kind of international army." This won’t happen overnight, so for “the transitional period, military control has to be in our hands," but only for a few years. An international body—comprised, preferably, of Saudis and Emiratis (“all those rich countries who recognize our right to exist")—would have to help the Palestinians build “an independent economy, a normal education, normal housing, a civil society."

Mr. Sharansky projects a 10-year timeline for such an alternative, at the end of which Gazans could “elect representatives who are really concerned about them, with whom we can negotiate."

Mr. Sharansky, born in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, has been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin’s war on the land of his birth. Does he make a connection between the defense of a free Ukraine and support for Israel? “Putin’s invasion is a threat to the free world," Mr. Sharansky says. “Ukraine fighting for its identity, for its right to be a Ukrainian democratic state, is defending the free world." Israel, too, “for all these years, has been fighting for its right to be a Jewish democratic state, which is also in the interests of the free world." Both people’s fight for survival highlights “the connection between freedom and nationalism." He says he means nationalism not “as a four-letter word, or Putin’s imperialistic nationalism, but one that asserts your right to live as one people in freedom."

The Netanyahu government has faced criticism for failing to support Ukraine and perhaps even tilting toward Russia. The usual explanation is that Israel is constrained to cooperate with Russia to keep things from spiraling out of control with Iran, these days among Mr. Putin’s closest allies, especially in Syria, where Russia has a military presence. “It’s absolutely ridiculous," Mr. Sharansky says, “that Israel is fighting Iran and tries to appease Russia, and America is fighting Russia and tries to appease Iran."

But Mr. Putin has declined to support Israel in the wake of Hamas’s attack, and Mr. Sharansky thinks that “that’s the end of illusions about Russia in Israel." The former refusenik, who lived with Russian anti-Semitism until he was 38, has often said Mr. Putin is a rare Russian leader who isn’t an anti-Semite. He hasn’t changed that opinion: “He’s a dictator. He is a war criminal. He has to be brought to trial. But who is an anti-Semite?"

An anti-Semite, Mr. Sharansky says, is “one who persecutes or hunts Jews for being Jews. I’m very critical of Putin, on the one hand, and on the other, I’m saying he’s not anti-Semite. What to do? Every anti-Semite is in some way a villain. But not every villain is an anti-Semite."

As recriminations fly against Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Sharansky cautions against precipitate calls for his resignation. Many blame the prime minister for ignoring warnings from Egypt of an imminent Hamas attack. “Look," Mr. Sharansky says, “for this exact reason there will be an investigation. In Israel, even small battles are studied minute by minute. What happened? What was right? What was wrong? Here, there will be huge investigations. There will no doubt be a committee of the most respected judges and war specialists who would analyze the failure of intelligence—military and political."

No one denies that “everybody who was at the top was responsible, in one way or another. You can’t say that the head of intelligence is responsible, but the prime minister is not." But Israel’s success in identifying and killing “so many leaders of Hamas who are hiding" proves that “we restored our intelligence practically immediately. From the feeling that we lost everything in 24 hours, you already have a feeling that your intelligence is working."

Credit for the “quickest mobilization," he says, “goes to the people, of course, but it’s also because of our leaders. So this is definitely not the moment to say, specifically, that the prime minister, or this minister, or this leader, has to resign." Such action, says Mr. Sharansky, is “only for after serious investigation. Right now, we have to win the battle. And Bibi and our army are leading us in this effort."

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

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