Sharanskys book on democracy resonates with White House

washington | Listening attentively to Condoleezza Rice describe President Bush’s vision of Mideast peace, more than a few of the 14 Jews gathered at the White House felt a sense of deja vu.

Talking among themselves later, it made sense why much of it sounded so familiar.

When Rice spoke of “the stability of democracy” and “the fruits of liberty” at the Nov. 30 meeting, she was echoing a book by Natan Sharansky, an Israeli Cabinet minister and former prisoner of the Soviet gulag.

A conversation with Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council’s top Middle East adviser, confirmed the impression: A month earlier, Bush seized on Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” as validation of his own case for reform in the Arab world.

Having left his copy dog-eared, Bush told his staff to read the book as well.

“When the president tells you, ‘I want you to read this book,’ you better read this book,” Abrams was quoted as telling the Jewish organizational leaders.

In the book, Sharansky outlines a set of changes he believes Palestinian society must undergo before Israel or the United States agree to any concessions toward Palestinian statehood.

That idea, clearly enunciated by Bush and his Cabinet in recent speeches, has run into resistance from European and Arab allies.

Still, Sharansky can’t help but marvel at the success of his book, which was difficult to find in Washington book stores once news of Bush’s endorsement spread.

“I can’t say it’s a big surprise to me that the president is a man who shares my views,” Sharansky said in an interview in New York.

In fact, he said, the book was inspired in part by Bush’s June 2002 speech pegging Mideast peace to Palestinian reform. Sharansky praised the president as a fellow “dissident” fighting conventional wisdom.

Sharansky had expected his book to “trickle up” through think tanks, op-ed columnists and members of the U.S. Congress before it got Bush’s attention.

“In fact, the mission was fulfilled almost before it started,” Sharansky said. “On the third day of my book tour, my publisher received a call from the White House: The president is reading my book and wants to meet me.”

The Nov. 11 meeting, scheduled for 20 minutes, lasted 70. On his way out of the Oval Office, Sharansky apologized to former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who had been kept waiting.

“He was so helpful for me in the struggle for my release,” Sharansky said of the Reagan-era official.

Insiders say Bush wasn’t so much inspired by the book as gladdened by the validation it offered, from a celebrated survivor of the Soviet gulag, for his own theories that progress toward peace can only come after democratic reforms.

When they met Dec. 2, Bush urged Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin to read the book. Bush’s language in a statement after that meeting echoed Sharansky’s own.

“Achieving peace in the Holy Land is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement,” Bush said. “This approach has been tried before without success. As we negotiate the details of peace we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief