Text size

In his new book, "The Case for Democracy," Natan Sharansky tells what happened when he tried to sell Prime Minister Ariel Sharon his ideas on a peace process that would be based on freedom and democracy in the Arab world. "`I understand that in the Soviet Union your ideas were important, but unfortunately they have no place in the Middle East,' Sharon told me."

For years, Sharansky has preached about basing international relations on moral clarity that distinguishes between "free societies" and "societies of fear." According to Sharansky, tyrannical countries export violence, war and terror in order to strengthen their control at home, while democracies do not wage war against each other. Thus, it is important to spread democracy and bring down totalitarian regimes everywhere, including the Arab world.

The Olso process failed, Sharansky argues, because it gave birth to a new dictatorship in the territories that spread incitement and terror against Israel. He does not accept the claim that the Arabs "are not built" for democracy. After all, they also said that about the Germans, Italians, Japanese and Russians.

In Washington, Sharansky found two enthusiastic readers - George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, who quote him at every opportunity. His book strikes at the heart of the historical argument over American foreign policy between ideologues, who believe in spreading freedom - even by force - and European-style realists, who seek "stability" and prefer alliances with strong rulers. Bush Sr. was a realist; his ideologue son and the new secretary of state have made the establishment of democracy in the Middle East a main foundation of their policy.

There are almost no echoes of this dispute in Israel. Sharansky and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prominent representatives of the ideological camp, find it hard to convince others. Everyone here is a realist. Sharon does not believe and is not interested in Arab democracy. Bush's visionary speeches do not speak to him, and he views the elections in the Palestinian Authority as a means of fortifying Mahmoud Abbas' control, and not as the dawn of a new era.

Shimon Peres believes that money and economic development would curb Palestinian violence, and he prefers to work things out with existing rulers. "Economic democracy is no less important than political democracy," he told Rice yesterday.

The left, which preaches about human rights in Israel, closes its eyes when it comes to things happening on the other side of the border. If the Arabs want despotism, that is their business. The left views the ideas of Netanyahu and Sharansky as an excuse for maintaining control of the territories.

The Sharm el-Sheikh summit today will be a show of strength for the realists. Mubarak, who is approaching a fifth term as president, convened the meeting as a response to Bush's State of the Union challenge to Egypt: "And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."

The deal is simple: Sharon grants legitimacy to the Egyptian regime and the existing regional order, against the "tsunami" of elections in Iraq and the American call for democratization. In exchange, Sharon will receive public recognition in the Arab world, where he was rejected until now as an oppressor of the Palestinians.

American commentators sometimes err in identifying the policies of Bush and his neo-conservative friends as "support for the Likud." They do not distinguish between Netanyahu and Sharon. The finance minister speaks enthusiastically about the political revolution Bush is creating in his call for regime change in the region. The prime minister connects with yesterday's men, who share the same age and military background.

There would seem to be an opening here for misunderstanding between Sharon and Bush-Rice. But the prime minister has nothing to worry about. Bush, the born-again Christian, also understands that there are limits to being a missionary. He talks about change in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and continues to embrace their rulers. He quotes Sharansky, one of the leaders of the Likud rebels, yet supports the disengagement plan instead of advising Israel to remain in the Gaza Strip until democracy strikes root there.