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Some Things Are Not What They Seem

By Alan H. Stein, Ph.D.

Unpublished commentary by PRIMER's vice president.

Sometimes what news stories omit is more important than what they include.

Several weeks ago, there were some short news stories that "right wing" Israeli minister Natan Sharansky had resigned from the Israeli cabinet in opposition to the decision to withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip and some parts of the northern West Bank.

As reported, the situation seemed cut and dried: a hard-line Israeli opposed reconciliation with the Palestinian Arabs and, unable to countenance some small gestures, resigned in protest.

The real story is far more subtle and interesting and, whether one agrees or disagrees with the disengagement plan, worthy of far more analysis than given in the various newspaper articles in our area, as was readily apparent to me recently as I listened to Sharansky speak at the annual Policy Conference for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a public interest group which works to strengthen the vitally important bond between our country and our democratic friend and ally in the Middle East.

Natan Sharansky is one of the giants of our time who, in the opinion of some, was as responsible as anyone else for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

A human rights activist in the Soviet Union, Anatole Sharansky was a political prisoner for nine long years, much of it in solitary confinement and under harsh conditions. His cause was the cause of human rights activists throughout the world, inspiring the song of freedom "Leaving Mother Russia," beginning "They call me Anatole, in prison I do lie, my little window looks out on a Russian sky" and ending "They may bring us to our knees but we'll never die!" The activism on his behalf was one of the catalysts which transformed the Soviet Union and his release was a joyous day for human rights activists throughout the world. It was upon his release that he traded his Russian name Anatole for his Israeli name Natan.

His experience gives him the strong belief that human rights, freedom, peace and democracy are vitally linked.

This background must be taken into account in analyzing his resignation from the Israeli Knesset, but was omitted from most of the short articles which made it appear he was a hard-liner opposed to concessions, despite the fact that Sharansky has repeatedly and clearly stated that he is not opposed to concessions, including territorial concessions, and that peace is more important than territory.

When Sharansky spoke to thousands at the AIPAC Conference, he said that "for all these years I measured peace progress by the level of freedom, by the level of civil society, that exists or doesn't exit there [in the Palestinian Authority]," not by territory or concessions.

Because of his experience with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sharansky is more optimistic than most about the probability of a free and democratic Palestinian Arab society emerging. He described a recent event at which four professors explained why there were no Arab democracies, implying there was little chance of democracy emerging in the Palestinian Authority, while Sharansky and a Palestinian Arab businessman were alone in believing it was possible. For Sharansky, after all, if the tyranny of the Soviet Union could be overthrown, there is little that is not possible.

The real message from Sharansky is one of realistic optimism that should not be categorized as either left wing or right wing, hard-line or dovish. He recognizes the disengagement plan adopted by the Israeli government is a product of pessimism, the belief that not only was there no peace partner but there is no possibility of real peace in the foreseeable future, so that separation was necessary in order to live with some degree of security and normalcy.

Sharansky talked of a phone call he had received in 2002 from a Palestinian Arab living in Ramallah, a call made clandestinely from that city by a man who feared for his life, pleading for confirmation that Sharanksy really believed that "one day, there would be democracy in the Palestinian Authority." Sharanksy's affirmation brought hope to that contemporary dissident.

Combined with Sharansky's more optimistic view of the possibilities for change in Palestinian Arab society is his expectation the disengagement plan will be perceived as a victory for terrorists and terrorism and make both freedom for the Palestinian Arabs and peace for the Palestinian Arabs and Israel less likely.

The background, necessary to put Sharansky's resignation and opposition to disengagement at this time in perspective, was unfortunately lacking in most news stories, leading to simplistic and misleading inferences by readers.

Sometimes what news stories omit is more important than what they include.

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