In a Congressional subcommittee hearing, Natan Sharansky, former Israeli minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, expressed his belief that any Israeli concessions as part of the U.S. sponsored Roadmap including the planned August withdrawal from Gaza should be contingent upon Palestinian reforms. He also called upon the U.S. government to support dissidents in the Palestinian territories and other parts of the Arab world.
The hearing, held by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Connecticut), examined the impact of U.S.-led efforts to foster democracy in the Middle East, and U.S. policy in Iraq. Testifying alongside Sharansky was Mithal Al-Alusi, an Iraqi politician whose grassroots political party, The Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation (DPIN), advocates individual rights and alliances between the new Iraq and other democracies, including Israel.
A former Soviet dissident who was imprisoned for nine years in the U.S.S.R., Sharansky recently resigned his post as a minister in the Israeli government due to concerns that Israel is failing to demand meaningful democratic reforms on the part of Palestinian leadership.
The purpose of the hearing was to explore whether the Bush Doctrine to combat terrorism and support democracy is working in the Middle East, and to discuss ways to further encourage democratic reforms in the region, according to documents prepared by Shays' office in advance of the hearing.
Sharansky emphasized that Israel's plan to withdraw forces from Gaza in August should be contingent upon reforms within Palestinian society. Specifically, he would like to see Palestinian leadership dismantle terror organizations, end incitement in official schools and media, provide better housing, and relinquish its tight control over Palestinians' economy.
"The questions we should be asking are whether the education of incitement will continue, whether [Palestinians] will continue in refugee camps or [receive] better housing, whether a free economy will be allowed, and whether terrorist organizations will be dismantled or allowed to continue," he said.
In an interchange with Shays, Sharansky expressed concern over the possibility of Israel's repeating some Oslo-era mistakes.
"The big mistake of Oslo was [the idea that] if we strengthen [Arafat's] dictatorship, it will bring us stability," he said. "We need [to help build] a free Palestinian society. If we move in the opposite direction "
"So we have to tolerate instability to get stability?" asked Shays.
"So-called stability brought by dictators brings about long term instability," said Sharansky.
Intrinsic to Sharansky's theory, expounded in his recent book "The Case for Democracy: the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror" is that totalitarian or "fear" societies require an external enemy in order to control their citizens and maintain their illegitimate power. According to the theory, a government that functions without the consent of the governed and disregards the rights of its citizens will seek conflict with other countries as a tool for diverting its people's frustrations. President Bush has cited Sharansky's book in recent months.
At the hearing, Sharansky postulated that if the Israeli and U.S. governments were to employ what he termed a policy of "linkage" making concessions toward and funding of Palestinian leadership conditional upon that leadership's institution of democratic reforms peace might have its chance.
"With Abu Mazen, we have a better chance, but only if our concept isn't 'Let's support at all costs.'" he said. "The linkage must be clear: [it's] a struggle against terror organizations, not a cease fire. The system of education is not for incitement and terrorist activities. We need more free economic life for the Palestinians, not more control over Palestinian life by leaders…if these [conditions] are linked to support, then there is a good chance."
Remembering the hope he garnered when he learned, as a dissident, of President Reagan's characterization of the former Soviet Union as "the evil empire," Sharansky spoke about the need to support Palestinian dissidents with whom he says he has dialogued.
"When I was talking to Palestinian dissidents who are strong advocates for a democratic society during Arafat['s leadership,] there was a difference between what they faced and what I did, because [Soviet dissidents] knew we could go to prison, but the free world would be aware of us," he said. "[Palestinian dissidents] had no such assurance.
"The main message [of the West] to them was, 'Don't weaken Yasir Arafat.'"
Sharansky concluded, "Palestinians who want civil societies are our real allies. No concern should undermine our commitment to supporting them."
In his testimony, Al-Alusi echoed Sharansky's concerns about the need for the U.S. government to support individuals in the Arab world who champion true democracy, including individual rights.
"We need real support for liberals in the Mid-East," Al-Alusi said.
A one-time Ba'athist who fled Iraq 26 years ago with his family after being threatened with death for opposing Saddam's human rights abuses, Al-Alusi returned in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom and accepted a position as director general of the Iraqi National Commission on de-Ba'athification.
Last September, in order to explore possibilities for cooperation between Israel and Iraq in fighting terrorism, he attended a counterterrorism conference in Herzliya. While he was still at the conference, his family began receiving death threats. Upon his return, the Iraqi interim government stripped him of his position and security protection for violating a law, established under Hussein's dictatorship, against visiting Israel.
Not willing to be intimidated and with the help of his sons, he founded the DPIN and got the party onto the ballot for the Iraqi election.
Days afterward, his two sons, Ayman, 30, and Gamal, 22, as well as their bodyguard, were murdered by insurgents.
At the hearing, Al-Alusi, who continues to run the DPIN, pointed out that unlike the larger, religious parties in Iraq, parties like his that favor individual rights and alliances with other democracies receive no support from American non-governmental agencies.
"In Iraq, extremist parties have 100 newspapers, liberals have five," he said. "Extremists have TV and radio stations, but no liberals have TV or radio stations."
Asked by Rep. Shays for his opinions about U.S. policy in Iraq, Sharansky said he did not know who he was "to speak in the presence of a hero of the Iraqi nation, Mr. Al-Alusi," but that in general, he believes the free world should use the policy of linkage or use all political and economic means at its disposal to encourage any new government to respect the rights of minorities and dissenters.
An exchange between Rep. Shays and Sharansky toward the end of Sharansky's testimony highlighted the latter's desire to see the U.S. pressure Arab countries on behalf of dissidents.
While commending Sharansky's courage, Rep. Shays noted Sharansky had been sentenced to 13 years in a Soviet prison.
"But I only served nine," Sharansky said.
Rep. Shays shot back, "only nine?"
"Yes," Sharansky said. "Because of the pressure of the U.S. government."