Natan Sharansky is a former Soviet dissident and Likud Party official in Israel whose hardline ideas about Middle East peace have been championed by neoconservatives and other rightist political actors in the United States. Sharansky, who joined an exclusive club of foreign figures when he was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, gained widespread media attention after President George W. Bush's 2005 State of the Union Address, which pundits noted was heavily influenced by Sharansky's 2004 book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror.
As Slate reported, "Two days before his second inaugural address, Bush told CNN that the [The Case for Democracy] 'summarizes how I feel. I would urge people to read it.' Soon, the former Soviet dissident began getting more credit than Michael Gerson for Bush's rhetoric about the relationship between democracy and peace. Newsweek called The Case for Democracy Bush's 'own manifesto in the Middle East—a tome he recommends to all comers in the Oval Office.'"
In his book, Sharansky argues that U.S. foreign policy should be guided at least as much by ideals as by national interests, and that part of that idealism should be a mission to export freedom to other countries, focusing primarily on the Arab world. According to Sharansky, the United States should not only prevent terrorists and terrorist states from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, but should also "understand how powerful weapons of mass construction can be in the hands of the free world."
Sharansky, who spent several years in the Soviet gulag before emigrating to Israel, has served as a top official in the Israeli government, including as a deputy prime minister in the Likud government of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In November 2006, Sharansky resigned from the Knesset, taking up the post of chairman and distinguished fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies, a research department at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem that would soon carry the name of its key funders, the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Adelson, a physician.
According to the Adelson Institute, among its main issues are "how to advance freedom and democracy in the Middle East … and the strengthening of Israel's relations with the United States." Fellows at the institute include former chief of staff of the Israeli military Moshe Ya'alon, a fierce critic of Israel's decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip; Michael Oren, a Middle East historian; and Martin Kramer, a scholar who led a campaign for Congress to create a political review board overseeing U.S. Middle East language studies centers.
Although Sharansky says he is no longer interested in public office—in the spring of 2008 he reportedly turned down an offer to serve as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations—he remains politically active. In June 2007, Sharansky, along with Vaclav Havel and former conservative prime minister of Spain Jose Maria Aznar, were lead organizers of the Democracy and Security Conference in Prague, an event that gathered "dissidents" from Middle Eastern countries, China, and Eastern Europe and presented U.S. President George W. Bush as its headliner to speak about the "war on terror." Bush compared the war on terror to the Cold War, saying, "The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs—it is the universal appeal of freedom. Freedom is the design of our Maker, and the longing of every soul."
The conference, sponsored by the Prague Security Studies Institute, the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, and Spain's Foundation for Social Analysis and Studies also was attended by Freedom Watch's Sheldon Adelson; Peter Ackerman of Freedom House; Anne Bayefsky of the Hudson Institute; Jeffrey Gedmin of Radio Free Europe; Reuel Marc Gerecht, Joshua Muravchik, Michael Rubin, and Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI); Devon Gaffney Cross; Farid Ghadry of the U.S.-based Reform Party of Syria; Bruce Jackson of the Project on Transitional Democracies; Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT); Clifford May and Walid Phares of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; and Harold Rhode, a Pentagon employee close to many core neoconservatives like David Wurmser.
During the conference, Sharansky implied in an interview with Radio Prague that Iran would one day use nuclear weapons. He said, "Well, the problem is not only in nonconventional weapons. The problem is in a nonconventional regime. The leaders of Iran today, it's not like communists in the Soviet Union, who wanted paradise in this world. They want paradise in the next world, and they're ready to take everyone with them to the next world—to their paradise."
Sharansky is also a founding member and current chairman of One Jerusalem, a New York-based organization whose mission is "maintaining a united Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel," proclaiming that "only Israeli sovereignty will protect access to the holy sites of all three major religions." Other prominent U.S. cofounders of One Jerusalem include Douglas Feith and David Steinmann, who is chairman of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and a board member of the Center for Security Policy.
In November 2007, Sharansky announced that One Jerusalem was launching a multimillion dollar campaign aimed at preventing any division of Jerusalem. He said, "Above all Jerusalem is the base of our identity. The problem is that there are many people who want to get rid of their identity." According to the Jerusalem Post, "The open-ended public campaign entitled 'More than Anything Else Jerusalem' will include radio and newspaper advertisements, special bus tours of Jerusalem in the coming weeks for tens of thousands of Israelis, an interactive Internet site, and the distribution of golden ribbons for the unity of Jerusalem—a spin-off of the orange ribbon used by the settlement movement."
From Soviet Dissident to Israeli Official
According to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the 1970s the Ukrainian-born Sharansky engaged "in underground Zionist activities"; in 1977 Soviet authorities arrested him on charges of treason and spying for the United States. Washington denied any connection between Sharansky and the CIA, but in 1978 he was found guilty and began serving a 13-year prison sentence.
An international campaign led to Sharansky's release on February 11, 1986, as part of an East-West spy exchange that was orchestrated by President Ronald Reagan. Sharansky traveled immediately to Israel, eventually becoming a leading voice for Soviet Jews. Sharansky has long professed his admiration for Reagan. In a February 2008 ceremony during which he was awarded the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award by the late president's foundation, Sharansky remarked, "Fewer and fewer people can remember the world of Communism and even fewer can appreciate that its demise could never have happened so quickly and so peacefully without the moral clarity, courage and vision which President Reagan brought to the world agenda of international relations."
In 1988 Sharansky founded the Zionist Forum, an organization that represented former Soviet activists, and in 1995 Sharansky formed Yisrael B'Aliya, a political party intended to represent new Jewish immigrants to Israel.
Sharansky has held a wide range of cabinet posts, including interior minister, housing and construction minister, and industry and trade minister. He served as deputy prime minister to Ariel Sharon from March 2001 to February 2003, when he broke with Sharon for his decision to withdraw from the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip.
Sharansky believes that there should be no "territory for terror" and that Israel should take back control of Gaza. In a February 2008 interview, he said, "I don't think that any democratic society can permit that type of tolerance which Islam permits when already from 2005, for three years now, the biggest, the most powerful terrorist entity is built, is attacking one after another our cities, and we are simply sitting and waiting. What I said, it's not something that we want to do, but they say that if it will continue with this, we will have no choice but to reoccupy at least those dozen territories from which missiles are falling on our houses everyday."
Upon resigning as deputy prime minister, Sharansky became minister for Jerusalem affairs and the diaspora as part of a deal in which his Yisrael B'Aliya merged with the ruling Likud Party.
In his role as diaspora minister, Sharansky traveled throughout the United States and authorized government funding to establish pro-Israel groups on U.S. college campuses. "Israel has few strategic assets as critical as American Jewry," Sharansky wrote in 2003. "The fact that the world's leading superpower is a steadfast ally of Israel is due in large measure to this proud and activist community."
Sharansky has asserted that Middle East studies departments at U.S. universities have adopted an anti-Israel posture due to "years of massive investments of money and effort by Arab states and the Palestinians." Due to "generous Saudi funding," such departments have "been set up to establish pseudo-scientific theories, presenting Israel as the last colonial state, whose very existence is immoral regardless of borders." As diaspora minister, Sharansky fought this supposed trend with "a concentrated effort," with help from partners including the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Caravan for Democracy. He visited more than 20 U.S. campuses during his time as diaspora minister to address and raise awareness about what he saw as the tendency on U.S. campuses to eliminate or minimize the Zionist perspective.
The Neoconservative Connection
Sharansky credits President Ronald Reagan, Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov (for whom Sharansky served as a translator), and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA) as playing integral roles in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Richard Perle, a leading neocon and former Jackson staffer, says Jackson and Sharansky are his two personal heroes.
Sharansky is a frequent guest at neoconservative institutions in the United States, especially the American Enterprise Institute. Although he resists any political label aside from "Zionist," his writing and speeches often use the political terminology and frameworks of the neoconservatives, including putting a right-wing spin on such terms as "moral clarity," "appeasement," and "totalitarianism." In his articles in Commentary and other neoconservative publications, Sharansky rejects the attempts to establish a "moral equivalence" between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In The Case for Democracy, Sharansky writes that the world is "divided between those who are prepared to confront evil and those who are willing to appease it." In April 2002, referring to the Palestinian Authority and Israel in a speech to a pro-Israel rally in Washington, Sharansky said: "Equating good and evil is an evil itself. We cannot accept moral equivalence between those who see human bodies as a shield for terrorists, and those for whom human rights are the highest value."
In a December 2004 review of The Case for Democracy in the Weekly Standard, Meyrav Wurmser noted that Bush had not only read the book, but also met with Sharansky and recommended to Condoleezza Rice that she read it, too. Wurmser concluded that "one of the great champions of freedom is now influencing the thinking of the most powerful man in the world"—an observation seemingly supported by Bush's 2005 State of the Union address.
Like U.S. neoconservatives, Sharansky's worldview is starkly moralistic. In a 2003 opinion piece, he wrote, "Despite the differences between them … anti-Americanism in the Islamic world and anti-Americanism in Europe are in fact linked, and both bear an uncanny resemblance to anti-Semitism. It is, after all, with some reason that the United States is loathed and feared by the despots and fundamentalists of the Islamic world as well as by many Europeans. Like Israel, but in a much more powerful way, America embodies a different—a non-conforming—idea of the good, and refuses to abandon its moral clarity about the objective worth of that idea or of the free habits and institutions to which it has given birth. To the contrary, in undertaking their war against the evil of terrorism, the American people have demonstrated their determination not only to fight to preserve the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity, but to carry them to regions of the world that have proved most resistant to their benign influence."
Sharansky also supports the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In July 2007 he penned an op-ed published in the Washington Post, asserting his belief that "a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces [from Iraq] could lead to a bloodbath." The "consequences of failure," Sharansky argued, could be "catastrophic to Iraqis, to regional peace and, ultimately, to U.S. security."
His past as a Soviet dissident and "refusenik" has lent Sharansky a moral platform he has not shied from making the most of. The 2007 Democracy and Security Conference that he cosponsored brought together various dissidents to "call upon governments and peoples throughout the free world to help those trying to build free societies elsewhere" but seemed to others to be a gathering of neoconservative forces who, instead of pushing for democracy, might have been pushing for U.S. regime change in the Middle East.