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On the morning of the day Hamas rose to power, Natan Sharansky was in Washington. He had just completed a lecture tour, and had a few free hours before his flight that evening. So he hopped over to the White House. Any other mortal with a few hours to kill in America, would at best go to Bloomingdale's and spend the time shopping. Sharansky says that he in fact tried to do this once, but the results of his shopping trip were rejected with utter derision by his wife and daughters. Given that stinging failure, he chose this time to hang out at the White House, where he met with presidential adviser Elliot Abrams and other high-ranking administration officials.

The first reports on the outcome of the election in the Palestinian Authority had just begun to flow into Washington. They spoke of a 30 percent vote for Hamas. Senior staffers at the White House were distraught. Sharansky told his hosts: "Tomorrow might be the end of the era that began with President Bush's speech in June, at which he declared the need for promoting democracy in the Middle East. This is the time for a renewed critical assessment of the situation. The Oslo process and the unilateral disengagement strengthened the extremists. You know my opinion on the subject."

Sharansky notes with satisfaction that he did not have to explain very much. They already understood. Presumably as a result of a recommendation by the boss, who happens to be the president, they had read Sharansky's book "The Case for Democracy," from which Bush often quotes. Bush's blurb graces the Hebrew version: "Read Natan Sharansky's book. Read it. A wonderful book."

In Israel, on the other hand, they apparently do not understand quite so well. The parallel lines drawn by Sharansky between peace treaties and democratization of the neighboring regimes were interpreted for years as the attempt of a right-winger to thwart any settlement that involved territorial concessions. Following the sweeping victory of Hamas in democratic elections, Bush and Sharansky were mentioned in the same breath by those who contended that this victory proves the failure of the democratization theory. Democratic elections had handed victory to a movement defined as a terror organization.

'Awful' road map

In a conversation held with him this week, on a day that he was flying to France to mark the publication of his book in French (the 11th language into which the book has been translated), the author was sounding much less evasive than reader Bush in his response to the rise of Hamas.

"Those who interpret my book this way have evidently not read it," he said, indignant. "It reminds me of the reality in the Soviet Union, where they would publicly denounce a book without having read it. The holding of elections is not in itself a proof of democracy; the existence of a free society is. I was not at all surprised by the results. I have been warning of this development for 11 years. There is no real difference between the terror of Hamas and that of the Tanzim or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Here [in Fatah - L.G.] there are corrupt people who care only for themselves, and here are terrorists who care about their people - that is the choice that stood before the Palestinian people."

On this point Sharansky disagrees with Bush, who pushed for the elections, regarding them as part of the Quartet's road map plan. "Germany and Japan didn't have elections in 1945, either," he claimed. "Elections are the end of the building process of a free society, not the beginning." He had even spoken about this with Vice President Dick Cheney immediately after the road map was unveiled. "There is no connection between democracy and elections," he told Cheney. "Democracy is free elections in a free society."

Nor was the Israeli government really listening. "On several occasions in the past decade I did all I could to persuade my ministerial colleagues that the road to peace is conditional upon freedom," he noted. But, as Sharansky writes in his book, Sharon told him once that he could understand that Sharansky's ideas were important in the Soviet Union, but unfortunately they have no place in the Middle East.

Sharansky: "It was obvious to me that the road map was awful. All of a sudden the Quartet appeared in it; it was devoid of moral clarity (for instance, equivalence between the demand for an end to Israeli incitement and the demand for an end to Palestinian incitement), and worst of all - the holding of elections was placed before the democratic reforms that have to take place prior to any election. I voiced to Cheney a series of reservations I harbored, in the spirit of what they themselves have said in the past. Cheney told me that this is what our prime minister should be telling the president. But Arik preferred not to say it, and even opted for disengagement, which it was clear would strengthen the extremists. Conversely, he liked to tell me with more than a little cynicism, 'It's a good thing that you convinced Bush of things that do not exist, like democracy in the Arab world.'"

Dictators and democracy

Now Sharansky thinks Israelis and Americans alike ought to make a critical assessment of the steps that led to the rise of Hamas. "Israel immediately blames the Shin Bet [security service], the Mossad, Bush, Sharansky, everyone. All that is missing is a critique of the misguided ideology of the process," he commented angrily. "The only self-criticism we are hearing is that we did not adequately strengthen Yasser Arafat in his time. Excuse me, but who exactly should have been strengthened? A corrupt dictator who could then rape his people even more? It is true that you cannot impose democracy, but you can impose a dictator by strengthening him."

In the conversation with him, as in his book, Sharansky often referred to the theory that democracy is alien to the Muslim existence and to Arabs. In his opinion, this is a racist theory that presumes Western superiority to the Muslim and Arab mentality. "One of the products of this patronizing approach is the disregard of democratic Palestinian groups. They have real dissidents there, exactly as we were in the Soviet Union. Except that there we knew that if we were arrested, the free world would be with us; whereas the free world disregards those here, because they do not have the power."

Sharansky speaks of the need to establish a free society and about the universal human longing for freedom. He is not sure the people of Israel share this assessment in regard to their neighboring countries. "Six months ago, a senior White House aide told me: 'Only now am I understanding what your problem is in Israel. Israelis aren't interested in the removal of the Syrian dictator,'" he declared. "They only understand that reliance on the stability of a dictatorship will eventually result in a war against Hitler or against Saddam Hussein."

Forthright words, but from the book, as well as from the conversation, one significant piece is missing: taking the effects of occupation into account. Even when he blames Israeli policy, from Oslo to disengagement, for strengthening the tyrannical and extremist trends in Palestinian society, the continued occupation and its practical fallout do not figure in the formula. The question of how to build a free society under occupation is not addressed.

However, now Sharansky is not only a philosopher; he is also a candidate on the Likud list. "I have no doubt that when you add it all up and you draw the conclusion that the road map and the disengagement were a failure, Hamas' victory should have a strong effect on the elections in Israel," he said.

And what, in his opinion, should Israel do? "Ignore it," Sharansky replied. "Not cooperate. End the whole relationship and not transfer any funds."

Asked if he sees any possibility of dialogue with Hamas in the future, Sharansky's answer was: "Maybe Hamas will make reforms; the problem with them is not an insensitivity to the suffering of their people, but the fact that they have an ideology of terror. Theoretically, it is possible that they will now say that terror was their mechanism in the past, but now that they are the ruling government, they want to talk. If that would be the case, I am by all means in favor of talking with them. But for that to happen, Hamas has to stop being Hamas, and that seems impossible to me."