By Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of the interior
July 6, 2000
Since my arrival in Israel, I have been criticized for not struggling for human
rights in my new country with the same vigilance as I struggled for human
rights in the Soviet Union. That criticism is sure to grow now that I have
announced my intention to resign from an Israeli government that is making
concessions to the Palestinians with insufficient popular support. To these
critics, it would seem, something happened to me on the way from the prisons
of the Gulag to the halls of the Israeli Knesset.
In truth, not only has my adherence to the sacred human rights
principles I fought for never wavered, it lies at the core of my entire approach
to the peace process.
There were two fundamental ideas that guided my struggle for human rights in
the Soviet Union.
First was the sanctity of individual autonomy. It was clear that a
totalitarian regime, by its very nature, could never respect human rights. The
institutions that enable free societies to protect human rights – a freely and
fairly elected government, meaningful opposition parties, a free press, law
courts with due process, not to mention human rights organizations – were all
glaringly absent from communist societies. The sovereignty and autonomy of
the individual is incompatible with any society that maintains stability by
controlling the minds and bodies of its subjects.
Second, I believed, along with men like Andrei Sakharov, Senator Henry
“Scoop” Jackson and President Ronald Reagan, that the most reliable way to
gauge a state’s intentions towards its neighbors was its treatment of its own
Put simply, a country that respected the rights of its own people would
also respect the rights of its neighbors. A repressive regime would always need
internal and external enemies to justify its policies, and would therefore always
pose a threat to peace. This idea was the basis of the dissidents’ demand that
the West must link international agreements with the Soviet Union to its human
When I arrived in Israel, I was deeply disappointed that the principles for which
I fought were not well understood. The fact that brutal Arab dictatorships had
the temerity to attack Israel on the issue of human rights did not surprise me.
The Soviet Union, with similar Orwellian flare, used to allege that rights in the
West meant nothing more than the right to die from hunger.
But Western and even Israeli critics would condemn Israeli human rights policies
without acknowledging the unique dangers facing a state that is an island of
democracy in a sea of authoritarian regimes. Not that there was nothing to
criticize. As minister of the interior, I can appreciate as much as anyone the
human rights problems that are created by illegal immigration, the illegal seizing
of land and building of property, and the many other violations that fall under
my authority. I must bear the consequences, both personal and political, of my
decisions, and I must make those decisions under the constant glare of the
international media and the pressure of public opinion around the world.
But what makes these painful decisions bearable is not merely that I am
convinced that I have made the right choices, but the fact that I know all too
well the face of a society where ministers don’t have such headaches. Human
rights advocates must recognize that while Israel must improve its human rights
record, it remains, despite the existential threat it faces, an open, transparent
society, with independent courts and a free press.
Most importantly, its human rights activists are free to criticize the
government and write press releases, rather than having to conduct hunger
strikes from the confines of a punishment cell.
After the peace process began, the misunderstanding became even more
Not only was the non-democratic nature of Mr. Arafat’s emerging regime
hardly ever criticized, it was actually viewed as advancing the cause of peace.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, articulating an attitude that is still pervasive
among Western leaders, coined the phrase that chillingly summed up this entire
line of thinking. Mr. Arafat would deal with terrorists, he said, “without a
Supreme Court, without Betselem and without all
kinds of bleeding heart liberals.”
Unfortunately, the shrill voices of most human rights organizations went
silent – a notable exception being Bassem Eid, who, after years struggling
against Israeli violations of human rights, now continues, as the director of the
Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, to criticize the Palestinian
In effect, the peace process has betrayed the two core principles for which I
have so bitterly fought. Not only has individual autonomy been sacrificed on the
alter of political expediency, but the link that Sakharov and others drew
between a state’s internal policies and its external behavior has been flipped on
The undemocratic nature of Mr. Arafat’s regime, far from being an
obstacle to further peace, is now considered a crucial asset in the fight against
terror. In the euphoric march towards peace, we seem to be losing sight of the
fact that the Palestinian society that will emerge – a society with no supreme
court, no human rights organizations and no bleeding heart liberals – will not
only undermine the rights of Palestinians but also endanger the security of
The same human rights principles that once guided me in the Soviet Union
remain the cornerstone of my approach to the peace process. I am willing to
transfer territory not because I think the Jewish people have less of a right to
Judea and Samaria than do the Palestinians, but because the principle of
individual autonomy remains sacred to me – I do not want to rule another
At the same time, I refuse to ignore the Palestinian Authority’s violations
of human rights because I remain convinced that a neighbor who tramples on
the rights of its own people will eventually threaten the security of my people.
I trust Mr. Arafat no more than I trust any despot. He has spent the seven years
since Oslo building a repressive regime and repeatedly inciting his people to
violence instead of opening Palestinian society and preparing his people to live
Therefore, I will continue to see an emerging Palestinian state as a threat
to our security – and continue to demand that our negotiating position reflect
A genuinely “new” Middle East need not be a fantasy.
But it will not be brought about merely by ceding lands to Arab dictators
and by subsidizing regimes that undermine the rights of their own people. The
only way to create real Arab-Israeli reconciliation is to press the Arab world to
respect human rights. Israel must link its concessions to the degree of
openness, transparency and liberalization of its neighbors.
For their part, Western leaders must not think the Arabs any less
deserving of the freedom and rights that their own citizens enjoy – both for their
sake and for ours.