Friday, November 26, 2004

Column: Bush, Sharansky and Reagan

PM Ariel Sharon has begun to back off from his ill conceived "unilateral disengagement" plan. He is now offering what has been called "bilateral disengagement" -- meaning that if the new Palestinian leadership fights terrorism, violence, and incitement, he is ready to coordinate a withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon said this on November 16: "If they take the proper steps, it will be possible to attempt to coordinate the withdrawal with them and allow them to accept the territory from us."

But why is Sharon suddenly placing conditions on withdrawal after so adamantly pushing forward the "unilateral disengagement" plan -- and that in the face of enormous opposition?

The answer might be found in the fact that on November 11, five days prior to Sharon's change of tune, President Bush -- who has been reading Natan Sharansky's new book, "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror"" -- met with Sharansky in Washington.

It seems that Sharansky has made quite an impression there. Firstly, Bush has recommended the book to Condoleeza Rice, who is reading it. Secondly, the responses that Bush gave at a November 12 press meeting with British premier Tony Blair appear to be direct quotes from Sharansky's book. The responses present a new strategy that requires the "Palestinians" to embrace democracy as a precondition for peace negotiations -- adopting Sharansky's position and making "unilateral disengagement" look ridiculous. Perhaps this is the reason for Sharon's new plan.
Here is one of the questions asked of Bush at the joint press meeting and his response:


"With Yasser Arafat's death, what specific steps can Israel take to revive peace negotiations? And do you believe that Israel should implement a freeze on West Bank settlement expansion?"

President Bush:

" I believe that the responsibility for peace is going to rest with the Palestinian people's desire to build a democracy and Israel's willingness to help them build a democracy. I know we have a responsibility as free nations to set forth a strategy that will help the Palestinian people head toward democracy. I don't think there will ever be lasting peace until there is a free, truly democratic society in the Palestinian territories that becomes a state. And therefore, the responsibility rests with both the Palestinian people and the leadership which emerges, with the Israelis to help that democracy grow, and with the free world to put the strategy in place that will help the democracy grow."

Please make note that in response to a question about a settlement freeze Bush made six references to democracy. Remarkably, Blair, in his responses, echoed Bush's answers almost exactly.

So, it appears that Sharon is adjusting. Does this mean there will be no "disengagement"? Not necessarily, but it looks like Sharon understands the new situation in which he finds himself -- one where Sharansky, a vocal opponent of his plan, has clearly become an influential figure in the White House.

While Sharansky is enjoying a newly exalted status in Washington he first came to the White House after being released from the Gulag in 1986 -- in a prisoner exchange engineered by the Reagan administration. His meeting then was a great success and laid the foundation for the current influence he enjoys.
Sharansky told about the meeting with Reagan in this way:

"The first time I met President Reagan I told him this story. I felt free to tell him everything. I told him of the brilliant day when we learned about his Evil Empire speech from an article in Pravda or Izvestia that found its way into the prison. When I said that our whole block burst out into a kind of loud celebration and that the world was about to change, well, then the president, this great tall man, just lit up like a schoolboy. His face lit up and beamed. He jumped out of his seat like a shot and started waving his arms wildly and calling for everyone to come in to hear "this man's" story. It was really only then that I started to appreciate that it wasn't just in the Soviet Union that President Reagan must have suffered terrible abuse for this great speech, but that he must have been hurt at home too. It seemed as though our moment of joy was the moment of his own vindication. That the great punishment he had endured for this speech was worth it."

It seems that Bush is still hearing Reagan's advice and listening to "this man's" story -- a truly inspiring one. Listening to Sharansky just may save Israel from a reckless plan and vindicate the vision of yet another American president at the same time -- in a different but perhaps not completely different war.


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