No one knows exactly how things will play out next week when Palestinian leaders make a bid for statehood at the United Nations, but Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, believes the impact will be more rhetorical than practical and that it represents no threat to Israel.
“I think it’s unfortunate. I don’t think it’s as tragic as some people try and present it,” the former Soviet dissident and prisoner said. “The only real consequence, then, is it will be much more difficult for both sides to come to direct negotiations.”
Sharansky’s comments came during a brief visit with reporters Sept. 13 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley prior to a lecture he gave on faith and America’s 40th president. The event was co-sponsored by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Centennial Celebration and Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.
Sharansky explained that peace will not come unilaterally and that it must be a grassroots effort.
“I believe that peace cannot be … imposed,” he said. “Nobody can be forced. Peace can be brought from the bottom up.”
Part of that, he said, must be democracy, including a Palestinian society that is built with a free economy, education, open political discussion, and security forces that fight terrorism.
Sharansky, the author of several books, including The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom, believes this can be achieved.
“I believe that democracy can come to the Arab world,” he said. “There are enough Palestinians who are interested to do it.”
Then Sharansky pointed to the Israeli model and how it didn’t happen overnight.
“Israel was created because for 30 years Jewish leaders of the community living in Palestine were building their democratic state. They were building the institutions of the state,” he said.
“We must have patience,” he concluded.
That’s something Sharansky knows something about. A human rights activist who was born in Ukraine, Sharansky was accused in 1977 of collaborating with the CIA and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
In 1986, he became the first political prisoner ever released by Mikhail Gorbachev, thanks to intense political pressure from Reagan. (Sharansky is featured at the president’s Simi Valley museum as part of its “Voices of Freedom” display.)
He has credited Reagan’s faith and moral clarity in helping Russian immigrants flee to Israel, where Sharansky founded the political party Yisrael B’Aliya and served as deputy prime minister, among other positions. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1986 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.