When an American president not only praises a book but practically sleeps with it under his pillow, you want to check it out. It's a good idea to know what the most powerful man on earth is intellectually impressed by - especially if it's written by a Russian Jew who was once an NKVD prisoner and is today an Israeli Cabinet minister.
I'm talking of course about Natan Sharansky's recently published "The Case For Democracy," which is said to have become George W. Bush's vade mecum. Mr. Bush, according to reports, has been touting the book and all but acting as its publicist. I decided to take his advice and read it.
It's definitely worth reading: Not deep, not subtle - if it were, Mr. Bush would have passed it on to Paul Wolfowitz - but with a simple message that would lose its punch in a more sophisticated presentation.
Democracy, Mr. Sharansky's book argues, is a system of government for everyone. No people in the world are incapable of living under it and no people in the world would not prefer living under it. The myth that there are such peoples serves only the tyrants who oppress them.
For this reason, Mr. Sharansky contends, citing his own experience as a Russian dissident, democracy can be extended everywhere. All it takes is the determination of the world's democracies themselves not to tolerate dictatorships. Such "fear societies," as he calls them, are always weaker than they appear from the outside and always need to provoke wars and conflicts to rally their disaffected populaces behind them. Lean on them, challenge them, never relax the political, economic, and military pressure on them, and they will ultimately collapse, as did the Soviet Union when Ronald Reagan - the politician Mr. Sharansky most admires - dealt with it in this fashion.
It's easy to see why Mr. Bush, who has courageously decided to apply the Reagan doctrine to the Middle East, likes "The Case For Democracy"- and why "The Case For Democracy" likes him and gives him high marks, even while criticizing him for being slow to grasp that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority was from its inception a "fear society," too. Only when its intifada-wrecked remains are thoroughly dismantled and rebuilt along democratic lines, Mr. Sharansky insists (something that he believes the Bush administration now understands), can long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace be achieved.
Bravo! One can agree with every - well, almost every - word of it. The problem that I, like many Israelis, have with Mr. Sharansky isn't about democracy in Iraq or the Palestinian Authority. It's about democracy in Israel, for which we sometimes wish he would show as much enthusiasm.
Israel's attorney general, Emmanuel Mazuz, wishes it, too. That's why, a few days ago, he wisely overruled a decision secretly taken last June 22 by the Israeli government's Ministerial Committee for Jerusalem Affairs, of which Mr. Sharansky is chairman.
This decision was outrageous in every sense. It chose to apply to Arab property in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem a 1949 law on "absentee ownership" that permitted the expropriation of land and houses abandoned by the Palestinian refugees who fled in the 1948 war. (Hundreds of thousands of acres passed into Israeli hands under this law.) Every building and tract of land in the Arab section of Jerusalem owned by West Bank Palestinians living outside the city's municipal limits, the Committee for Jerusalem Affairs ruled, would from now on be subject to uncompensated government confiscation.
Such confiscation would have amounted in the best of cases to outright theft. What made it almost sadistically absurd in this case was that many of the "absentee" Palestinian owners were living practically around the corner from the property they had supposedly "abandoned." Without due process and hiding behind closed doors, Mr. Sharansky's committee voted, with his approval, to commit wholesale robbery by administrative fiat.
One might think this strange behavior for a man who spent eight years in Soviet prisons. Yet Mr. Sharansky, whose bravery as a dissident earned the admiration of the world, has been a disappointment before this, too, if not quite on such a breathtaking scale. Not once in all his years in Israel has he ever stood up for the rights of the Palestinians of the occupied territories - who, however necessary Israel's policies toward them may or may not be on an overall basis, have undeniably often been, individually, the helpless victims of unchecked state power, just as he was.
Mr. Sharansky perhaps could - in his book he implicitly does - justify his behavior by saying that, Israel being a free society in which there already are many fighters for Palestinian rights, it would have been superfluous for him to speak out on such issues. Yet, given his stature and the fact that he would have been speaking not as one more critic of the government on the anti-nationalist left, but as a rare voice of conscience on the nationalist right, he missed a unique opportunity to demonstrate bravery in a different context.
It is, indeed, important to call for Palestinian democracy. But as Mr. Sharansky observes in his book, the Palestinians' closest and most influential model of a democratic society is Israel itself. An Israel that behaves in grossly undemocratic ways is hardly going to inspire the forces of democratic reform in Palestinian life.
Mr. Sharansky acquired, during his years as a prisoner of conscience, great moral authority - and it is this authority which gives "The Case For Democracy" much of its resonance that appeals to Mr. Bush. Yet moral authority that is acquired is also moral authority that can be frittered away. The case for democracy isn't helped when it is.
Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.