SPIEGEL-Interview with Israeli Minister Natan Sharansky Former Gulag Prisoner Gets the Ear of the US President

Natan Sharansky, a former Gulag prisoner and today an Israeli cabinet minister, discusses new opportunities for peace in the Middle East, his role as a "guru" for the US president, and the fight against possible nuclear powers Iran and North Korea
Von Erich Follath und Annette Großbongardt


Mr. Sharansky, we are currently witnessing the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon, Syria's willingness to compromise and election reforms in Cairo. Is a new wind blowing in the Middle East? And can the American president truly take credit for this?

Sharansky: I am very optimistic in terms of the potential fundamental change in the Middle East. On the one hand, you have the entire region's deep longing to live in freedom and, on the other, the US president's clear message that the United States is putting all its might behind democratic change. In the Arab world, we are now seeing the same forces at work that led to the collapse of the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union without a single shot having been fired. We should not be shy about pushing for deep-seated reforms. After all, those who warned that Gorbachev was being put under too much pressure were wrong.

SPIEGEL: Has Bush paid you a fee yet for all the thoughts and expressions he has borrowed from you, in his second inaugural speech, for example?

Sharansky: No, and he doesn't have to. But I am very pleased that he's increased the circulation of my book by recommending it.

SPIEGEL: In his new mission to triumph over tyrants worldwide, the American president has expressly referred to your work on the power of freedom. He's recommended it to both his secretary of state and the German chancellor. Indeed, you were even summoned to the White House in November for a one-hour meeting with Bush.

Sharansky: Yes, it was shortly after the US presidential election. I happened to be on a book tour of the United States when I suddenly received a call from someone at the White House. They said the president wanted to meet me and that he was very excited about my book.

SPIEGEL: What did he find so fascinating about it?

Sharansky: Bush explained his fundamental concept to me, that freedom is not an American invention, but rather a gift from God to all people. He said that what I had written had essentially confirmed his ideas, and that it was made all the more powerful by my life story and my painful experiences in the Gulag. He believes that I provide him with a theoretical basis for his policies.

SPIEGEL: You and Bush both say that fighting tyranny and spreading democracy is not just a moral obligation, but is also in the strategic self-interest of Western free societies: "Just as slavery was wiped from the face of the earth, government tyranny can also disappear." Where does this optimism come from?

Sharansky: My theory is that security -- also against terror -- can only be accomplished through global democratization. It isn't exactly a popular view. I told Bush that he is a true dissident, because he doesn't just pay attention to opinion polls, but remains true to his beliefs and fights for them. I also told him that dissidents are very lonely. But history is ultimately on their side.

SPIEGEL: Let us assume that Bush's true objective is democratization and not securing oil reserves and military bases. This still leaves us with the question as to whether Western democracy is right for the Islamic world?

Sharansky: I have no doubt that the Arabs also want to be free. Back in the days when we were suffering under the Communists in the Soviet Union, our friends in the West told us that democracy is a great thing, but that it isn't right for Russia, that it goes against the mentality and culture of the Russian people. Change only came about when the link between security and human rights was established under Ronald Reagan.

SPIEGEL: What distinguishes Bush from his predecessors?

Sharansky: I have spoken with many American presidents, including Bill Clinton, who is probably the world's best listener. But nothing came of it. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush understood immediately that he was dealing with a global challenge, not just the fight against al-Qaida. But the direction Washington was taking was unclear at first. Then, three years ago, the Israeli army launched a major offensive in the West Bank to clear out terrorist strongholds. Bush publicly demanded that we withdraw immediately. But he also said, for the first time, that the Palestinians need democratic leadership, that this was an absolute prerequisite for serious negotiations. It was my speech.

SPIEGEL: Aren't you worried that your ideas are being misused to justify all kinds of preventive wars? Is it even possible to expand democracy with weapons, like in Iraq?

Sharansky: I don't say that troops have to be sent everywhere. On the contrary. I make it clear how important it is to tie relations to human rights. If regimes have to be opposed militarily, it's usually because they've been let off the hook for too long under policies of appeasement.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that George W. Bush had to topple Saddam because the United States supported him for too long?

Sharansky: I believe he had no other choice. Free nations generally look for ways to deal with dictators amicably. Lyndon B. Johnson once said: They may be bastards, but they're our bastards. For many years, until shortly before Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Americans thought that Saddam was their bastard. The same applies to Saudi Arabia. The fact that al-Qaida exists today comes from the United States having pursued a policy of appeasement for decades.

SPIEGEL: And they are still doing it in Riyadh today. Also in Pakistan, a dictatorship that's become useful in the fight against al-Qaida.

Sharansky: If you have to fight an enemy at a critical point in time, and you have an ally who happens to be a dictator, you don't say: Let's stop fighting right now, because you're not a democrat. That would be ridiculous. Imagine if the United States, in its war against Hitler, had said to Stalin: we don't want your support until you make your country democratic.

SPIEGEL: It seems that you are less of an idealist than a practitioner of realpolitik.

Sharansky: If the United States needs the Pakistani bases to combat terrorism, it won't wait for democracy. However, these strategic war alliances also strengthen undemocratic states such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- and make them dangerous. The Saudis were only able to put so much support, both financial and ideological, behind their extremist version of Islam, Wahhabism, because the Americans let them do it.

SPIEGEL: What needs to be done now?

Sharansky: First of all, the following principle must be clearly established: Oppressive regimes can be tactical allies temporarily, but this doesn't mean that these questionable allies have to be treated with kid gloves for decades. They are the enemy of free people.

SPIEGEL: When will it be time to begin treating problematic allies as enemies?

Sharansky: Long-term economic relations must be tied to the question of human rights. It is important to begin with small, relatively painless steps. In the Soviet Union, it began with relaxed emigration requirements. For Saudi Arabia, I would recommend improving women's rights, for example. It's important to get a process going that can then develop rapidly. As soon as people become a little less fearful, they will also begin demanding more freedom.

SPIEGEL: But there are some very direct threats. North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons, and Iran could also become a nuclear power soon ...

Sharansky: ... and the greatest threat of all. The mullahs make no secret of their desire to destroy Israel the minute they have the bomb. Everything must be done to prevent this. But if military intervention is ultimately the only option, it will simply represent another major failure on the part of the free world.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe the West also bears some responsibility here?

Sharansky: Take, for example, the negotiations intended to stop the smuggling of Russian nuclear technology to Iran. I was the first Israeli cabinet minister to go to Russia to present Moscow with evidence of the clandestine trade in its technology. It was not a particularly successful trip. But Putin was right in one respect: Iran is using both European and Russian technology. In fact, now we even know that some dangerous components came from Western Europe.

SPIEGEL: That may be true, but where is your fundamental criticism of President Vladimir Putin, who is beginning to limit basic rights again?

Sharansky: Of course I'm disappointed - and outraged over the banning of independent television station NTW and the arrest of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who I know personally as a man of integrity. I called upon Bush to criticize the Kremlin. Nevertheless, fundamental freedoms can no longer be reversed in Russia. Have millions been thrown into prisons under the Putin administration, as was the case in the USSR when I was caught in the Gulag? Things are also happening in the Ukraine. Once the virus of freedom gets into people's heads, it can only be held up by killing millions. Totalitarianism on a Stalin-like scale is no longer possible today.

SPIEGEL: Well, perhaps it still is, in North Korea. And in other, milder dictatorships like Iran, citizens create their private escapes and are hardly willing to shed blood for revolution.

Sharansky: There is a fast-moving internal erosion process in Tehran. Many social groups oppose the regime today. We must increase this potential. The only problem is that we may only have a few more months before Iran becomes a nuclear power. That would place the Jewish state in mortal danger.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean that a preventive military strike is the only option?

Sharansky: I know what you want to hear: Israeli cabinet minister calls for attack on Iran. I'm sorry, but you've come to the wrong address. You should go the prime minister's office next door.

SPIEGEL: Aren't you taking the easy way out by avoiding practical questions, such as the issue of how democracy is to expand in the Arab world? And when is the right time for reforms -- or attacks?

Sharansky: For more than a century, the free world encouraged and propped up dictators in this part of the world. It's high time to finally change course.

SPIEGEL: You dream of free elections in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But wouldn't elections mean that anti-Western Islamists would come into power, and could we accept the legitimate election of a bin Laden disciple?

Sharansky: We must respect the outcome of free elections. But free elections can really only exist in a free society.

SPIEGEL: Is Iraq a free society?

Sharansky: The Iraqi elections are a tremendous success for the new Bush doctrine. Almost 60 percent of citizens showed up at the polling stations, even though they faced the risk of being killed. I'd like to know how many Americans would vote under the same conditions.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe the election of the new Palestinian president was a free and fair election?

Sharansky: No. But it was still very important that it took place. I'd rather see the Palestinians electing their leadership in this way than shooting at one another. Now there is a good chance that a truly independent election will take place in a few years, the kind of election that always lies at the end of the process of developing a democratic society.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel optimistic about the outcome of the Sharm al-Sheikh peace summit, at which the parties declared an end to violence?

Sharansky: It's an important step toward building trust. But we have seen this so many times before: this need to achieve quick results, to solve the most pressing problems, but to place democratic reforms on hold yet again.

SPIEGEL: Is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a sort of Arafat-light, or do you see him as a new type of leader?

Sharansky: If we give him the chance to be an extremist, he will take advantage of it. But if we apply enough pressure, he'll have a better chance than Arafat of becoming a moderate leader. I've been saying for years that the Palestinians could establish the first democracy in the Arab world. But Iraq will beat them to it if they don't hurry.

SPIEGEL: But doesn't Israel have to end its occupation first, and finally grant the Palestinians the right to a viable state?

Sharansky: If we can have negotiations with truly democratic leaders who are acting in the interest of their people and for their freedom, I will not be afraid of compromise.

SPIEGEL: Do you intend to wait until Palestine has turned into a sort of Sweden before you return the occupied territories? You voted against the roadmap to peace, and now you are opposed to withdrawal from the Gaza strip.

Sharansky: Because it's one-sided. I don't think we should stay there forever, but it doesn't make sense for us to simply go away and tell them they can do as they wish. And the roadmap is repeating old mistakes: security first and then - maybe - democracy.

SPIEGEL: Aren't you impressed by the fact that hardliner Sharon, of all people, is fighting for this withdrawal plan? Or do you agree with the settlers and see him as a traitor?

Sharansky: I still admire Sharon, but I disagree with his tactics. The prime minister opted for a sort of liberation approach when it came to the Gaza issue, probably out of desperation.

SPIEGEL: Are you perhaps disappointed because he ignored you and your ideas? Because he said, in front of all the ministers in the cabinet: I understand that this was important in the Soviet Union, but now we are in the Middle East?

Sharansky: That's why I told President Bush that I was happy to have an ally like him.

SPIEGEL: When you were released in 1986 and emigrated to Israel, the peace groups expected that you would support the Palestinian cause. But by now you're even maligned as someone who opposes fundamental rights for the Palestinians.

Sharansky: Many so-called human rights activists have no interest in the dictators who are violating these rights. Instead, Israel is punished for supposed human rights violations more often than all the world's dictatorships combined.

SPIEGEL: But you can't deny that human rights violations do occur under Israeli occupation.

Sharansky: Yes, they do. But they can't be compared with the violations committed by tyrants. Israel is a democracy with independent courts and a completely free press.

SPIEGEL: As a Jew and a dissident, you were locked up in the Soviet Union. Have you ever returned to the sites of your torments and triumphs?

Sharansky: Yes. I returned to Russia for the first time 11 years after I was released. I went to the KGB prison where I was interrogated for 16 months before being sentenced. I donated five copies of my memoirs to the prison library and told the guard: If the prisoners are permitted to read this, then Glasnost was successful. My book became the most sought-after book in the prison library -- that recognition is as important to me as that of George W. Bush.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sharansky, thank you for this conversation.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Natan Sharansky: "The Case for Democracy". PublicAffairs, New York; 336 Pages; 26,95 US-Dollar.

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