WASHINGTON — A former Soviet dissident and Israeli deputy premier whose ideas President Bush has cited as an inspiration for his ambitious freedom agenda said the peace talks kicked off this week at Annapolis "has nothing to do with promoting democracy," and he warned that Israel will be lucky if it does not end in catastrophe for the Jewish state.
In an interview yesterday, Natan Sharansky said he did not feel betrayed by Mr. Bush, whom he called a friend. But he said, "I am upset." "The greatness of President Bush is the way he would believe in the power of the idea of freedom," Mr. Sharansky said. "He believes in principles; he was willing to stand alone against all for these pressures, but it is not enough to stand for principles. He has to appoint the people who share these beliefs and who would implement them. He has not."
Those words appear to be a direct criticism of Secretary of State Rice, who has made the creation of a Palestinian Arab state her top priority in the last year, visiting Jerusalem nine times to press for the launch of final status negotiations between the government of Israel and the nearly vanquished Palestinian Authority, now dominated by Fatah after the takeover of Gaza by Hamas in June.
Mr. Sharansky in 2002 was instrumental in persuading Mr. Bush that his administration should focus on building a Palestinian Arab civil society and the institutions necessary for transparent, democratic rule as a precondition for creating a Palestinian state. The last vestiges of that vision today are a commitment to building Palestinian institutions and the ascendancy of Salam Fayyad, an American-educated reformer praised widely for his efforts to end the misappropriation of international aid by the Palestine Liberation Organization under the late Yasser Arafat.
Another reason the Bush administration is pursuing peace talks now, however, is Iran. In 2006, following the cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel, European and Arab allies offered a kind of bargain: support for Iran's diplomatic and economic isolation in exchange for America's engagement in Arab-Israeli negotiations.
In September of that year, Ms. Rice's former senior counselor, Philip Zelikow told an audience at the annual retreat for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that such negotiations were a "sine qua non" for America's European and Sunni allies.
Since that time, Ms. Rice has sought to entice America's Arab allies in particular to support sanctions and isolation for Iran by crafting a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. On Tuesday, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and all the gulf states, aside from Kuwait, attended the Annapolis meeting that launched the new negotiations.
Mr. Sharansky yesterday said he thought it was ridiculous to entice European and Arab allies to do what is in their interest against Iran by pushing for a peace settlement now.
"Fighting against a nuclear Iran, it is not a favor to Israel — it must be, it has to be the top priority in America," he said. "If America is believed to be promoting democracy, it has to be the top priority of the free world and not a favor to Israel. To think that countries like Saudi Arabia will be more cooperative in the struggle against Iran if there will be more success in building democratic societies in Palestine is ridiculous. Iran is a bigger threat to Saudi Arabia than it is Israel. The second greatest threat to Saudi Arabia is any democracy in the Arab world. A democratic Iraq is a great threat to them. They will never be an ally promoting any democratic alternatives in the Middle East."
Mr. Sharansky also questioned the efficacy of the Palestinian Arab president, Mahmoud Abbas. "You have one force, Hamas, that does not recognize Israel, which is not going to recognize Israel, and fight Israel. The other force, which is our so-called partner, accepted by everybody, it doesn't represent anyone, has no power, and cannot influence anything."
The negotiations are dangerous because they reopen the question of whether Israel is a Jewish state, Mr. Sharansky said. It is not a problem that Palestinians or Arabs do not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he said, but he bemoaned the neutralism, with the exception of Mr. Bush, of the free world on this question.
"Sometimes you have to negotiate with your enemy," he said. "I am concerned that the free world, who are supposed to be our allies, with the exception of the leaders of the United States of America, are not prepared to give a strong statement. We won't hear a statement from European leaders; it would be too much of a provocation to say Israel is a Jewish state."