BOSTON - Even though he was standing on a high stage, Natan Sharansky was swallowed up in the crowd that pressed around him. Behind him stood federal security agents and burly policemen, in front of him stood young people and adults, Americans and foreigners, who wanted his autograph on his new book. There were also those who had not managed to obtain the book, which sold out quickly at the shops; they made do with an autograph on the flyer that Harvard University had handed out before Sharansky's lecture in the prestigious forum of the Kennedy School of Government. The large space where the lecture was held was absolutely full.
Minister Sharansky's lecture 12 days ago was planned as part of the crowded timetable of a four-day visit to the United States, during the course of which Sharansky met with members of Congress in Washington, gave radio and television interviews and met with various forums.
The great interest in the Israeli government minister responsible for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs does not derive from the way in which he is carrying out his duties, or from his heroic past as a freedom fighter in the Soviet Union, but rather from the fact that none other than United States President George W. Bush has enlisted in the publicity campaign for his new book.
The brand new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, told Sharansky about this in November, when she was still serving in her previous role as national security advisor. She said she wasn't reading the book because it is a best-seller, but rather because the president is reading it, and she had to read every book that her president reads.
Many others in the United States are reacting in the same way. This week the book is at number 18 on The New York Times Bestseller List, after taking the list by storm two weeks ago and appearing in 15th place after President George W. Bush mentioned it in his inaugural address.
It all began in November with the appearance of the book "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," which Sharansky wrote in English with the help of Ron Dermer, an American-Israeli who lives in Jerusalem, and who has served as political advisor to Sharansky and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On November 11, the day Yasser Arafat died, Sharansky received an urgent summons to the Oval Office at the White House. Rice too took advantage of the opportunity of his visit to Washington to meet with him.
Bush, who defined the book as "part of my presidential DNA" and of "my philosophy," mentioned it not only in his inaugural address on January 20 but also in his State of the Union address several days later. Since then everyone who wants to know what the White House is thinking has been trying to understand Sharansky's philosophy.
The basic principle of the theory is simple. Terror and war stem from the existence of tyrannical regimes that deny their peoples' liberty. In order to maintain their regimes, the tyrannical rulers must direct the anger of the masses to an external enemy - and lead them to war. The toppling of these tyrannical regimes, not by force but rather by means of economic and public pressure, will lead to the expansion of the circle of free democracies - which do not fight one another.
The criterion by which Sharansky assesses whether a given state is free is the "town square" test: If a person can come to the square and preach his opinions without being attacked or arrested, then he is in a free country, which maintains human rights; otherwise, it is a dictatorship. Thus, plain and simple: either "a free society" or a "fear society," with no nuances in between.
Sharansky stresses that he is basing his ideas on his personal experience. In the book, as well as in the lecture at Harvard, he relates with great charm how his awareness of "double-think" developed - a person's ability to regulate outwardly his real thoughts about the regime. This happened to him at the age of five, in 1953, when Stalin died.
The father of young Anatoly, as he was known, explained to him and his siblings that it was "a good day for the Jews," because Stalin had wanted to embark on a new wave of executions. The father added that a miracle had happened, but warned them not to tell anybody. The next day they went to kindergarten and there, like the other children, they wept over the death of the "Sun of the nations." Those who are aware of "double-think" can be found everywhere there is a dictatorship, argues Sharansky; they cannot express their opinions freely because they will be harmed if they do so.
Sharansky directs the thrust of his criticism at the Arab states and the Muslim countries. Their rulers, who are trying to preserve their regimes, are directing the masses' anger, as he sees it, at an external enemy. In most cases in the Arab world, this is Israel.
One of the examples that Sharansky gave at Harvard is Egypt, which, though far from being a democracy, has gained a lot from its peace agreement with Israel. But it lost Israel as an enemy and therefore has become "one of the main producers of anti-Semitic propaganda in the form of television programming and print material," including "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Another example of anti-Semitism is Saudi Arabia, which according to Sharansky is spreading Wahabbism (an extreme Sunni Islamic belief that is at the basis of the Saudi regime) and instability throughout the world in order preserve its own internal stability.
David Gergen, a lecturer in public service at the school of government at Harvard who for 30 years served as an advisor to American presidents, was the moderator of the evening. He believes that its success derived from the personal charm of Sharansky, telling Haaretz that the audience was enchanted by his personal story and by the philosophy he presented.
When asked whether he agrees with the theory itself, Gergen explained that everyone is in favor of democracy, but life is a bit more complex. Examples that support his approach may be found for example in Egypt, where only two months ago a large demonstration against President Hosni Mubarak was held, and in Lebanon, where opposition elements are expressing themselves openly against the continued Syrian presence in the country.
"The question is how to act, on a case by case basis, in countries that are not democratic," Gergen said. "The differences of opinion have more to do with whether or not to use force against them."
Sharansky lightly fended off the questions that were directed to him on the matter of the occupation in the territories. One woman in the audience asked him cynically whether the American administration should cut off its ties with Israel because it is treating the Palestinians tyrannically. Sharansky replied with a smile that the person who is saying that the extent of the concessions to the Palestinians should be proportional to their democratic reform is none other than the president of the United States, George Bush, adding that back in June 2002, he had declared that the administration was not prepared to work with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat.
"The Palestinian state has to be democratic," Sharansky declared.
It is hard to grasp from Israel the way in which Sharansky is perceived in the United States. In February 1986 he was received in Israel and the world with great affection after he crossed the bridge between East Berlin and West Berlin. In the 1990s he established the Yisrael b'Aliyah party, which has in the meantime been swallowed up in the Likud.
Many people in Israel perhaps see Sharansky as a gray figure with an uncompromising rightist image, but in the United States they don't see it this way.
"Why in fact can't he be the next prime minister, after [Ariel] Sharon?" an American student who attended the lecture asked in total seriousness.
Sharansky himself looks pleased with his new status as an idol of the masses. He enjoys joking with the audience, and speaks proudly about his meetings in Washington.
The book is causing concern in Egypt
The Washington correspondent of the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, Khaled Daoud, has concluded that Sharansky's book is threatening to the Arab world to the extent that it merits a series of reports in his newspaper, and the third article in the series is slated to be published today. The two that have already been published review the central idea of the book and criticize it.
"The book is very dangerous, especially in light of the fact that Bush praises it," wrote Daoud, adding that the conclusion from reading the book is very frustrating, and that the many lies and deceptions with which Sharansky is inundating Bush are giving rise to a sense of danger.
In response, Sharansky said in a press release: "I'm happy that Egyptian citizens will become familiar with the thesis presented in the book - I am sure that our region is ready for the era of democratization, and that the interest in the book will encourage discussion of the issue."
His aim has been achieved to a large extent, as the reports do indeed present the main idea of the book. What is not in the reports is self-examination - a discussion whether the arguments apply to the Egyptian regime.
Daoud does not miss the opportunity to express criticism of Sharansky at his weakest point. On the one hand, Sharansky divides countries into only two groups - free societies and fear societies - with no nuances in between. On the other hand, Daoud argues that Sharansky gives a discount to Russia, and claims that he is prepared to admit that the attempt to establish a democracy there has not been very successful.
In the end, argues Daoud, "the book is a primitive attempt to justify international involvement led by the United States in the concerns of all the countries of the world."
"Members of Congress ask me how to behave in the manner of President Bush," he said in an anteroom before the lecture. They too, incidentally, ask him to autograph his book for them.