What some view as a parliament full of jockeying and fractious squabbles, Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein see as a house that gives voice to Israel’s heterogeneous society.
The two former Soviet dissidents offered their thoughts on democracy in Israel and the Middle East Feb. 4 at the Hoover Institution in the District.
Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Edelstein, speaker of the Knesset founded a Russian immigrant party, Yisrael BaAliyah, in the 1990s. Now members of the Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they agreed, expanded out each other’s thoughts and occasionally politely disagreed with the other during the hour-long session.
Edelstein, 56, whose role includes working with all members of Knesset, pointed out that there are Arab members of Knesset who do not recognize the state of Israel.
Sharansky, 67, added that there is another bloc of members that declines to participate fully in Israeli democracy.
“We also have Jewish members of the Knesset who will not become members of the government because they don’t want the responsibility for the political [welfare] of the state,” he said referring to haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, parties. These parties nevertheless will accept government funding, he added.
Sharansky called Israel is “a unique success.” It’s a Jewish state, a democracy, an economic success and makes room in parliament for citizens who are ambivalent about the state. “It includes Jews who don’t want to sit in government. We want to include Arabs that don’t recognize us,” he said.
The two were cautious about the possibility of democracy flourishing in the greater Middle East. Edelstein called the Arab Spring revolutions “inevitable,” and said the region is at the start of “a long democratic process.”
The instability in the countries surrounding Israel is dangerous and Israel has no leverage to affect the outcome.
“But if the world for a change does something right, there’s a chance that some of the countries will become democracies,” Edelstein said.
Sharansky enlarged on the point: “Israeli leaders have to fight every day for Israel’s existence. We have to work very hard to make sure we aren’t destroyed. Israel doesn’t have real leverage. The United States does.”
Asked if there are opportunities for the West, led by the United States, in the Middle East, Sharansky said, “Yes, if America will lead the free world. But America has to decide if it wants to lead.”
Both men agreed that the West had sold out the democratic dissidents of the Arab Spring.
“The free world was given a great opportunity to support these dissidents,” Sharansky said. “But the free world and this administration are looking for the next generation of dictators – Sisi [of Egypt], Assad [of Syria], Iran. As long as the free world looks at dictators, there will be no democracy.”
See also: Sharansky, up close and personal