Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky was a prominent member of Ariel Sharon's Cabinet until May 2, when he quit to protest the Israeli Prime Minister's plan to pull out of settlements in the Gaza Strip. Now a fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank, Sharansky talked to TIME'S Jerusalem bureau chief, Matt Rees, about terrorism, human rights and Sharon.
AS SOMEONE WHO KNOWS A THING OR TWO ABOUT GULAGS, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL'S ACCUSATION THAT GUANTANAMO IS THE GULAG OF OUR TIMES?
The violation of human rights at Abu Ghraib was very serious, but it was only a few people. In Guantanamo, the human-rights violations were much more serious because they were part of the system.
BUT IS IT REALLY A GULAG?
I have very serious criticisms of Amnesty. There is no moral clarity. It doesn't differentiate between what I call fear societies and free societies. In the democratic world, there are violations of human rights, but they are revealed and dealt with. In a fear society, there are no violations of human rights because human rights just don't exist. All citizens are deprived of those rights. Amnesty International says it doesn't support or oppose any political system, so it ends up with reports that show a moral equivalence between, for example, Israel and the terrorist regimes that attack it.
HOW DOES THAT AFFECT THE WORLD'S VIEW OF ISRAEL'S HUMAN-RIGHTS RECORD?
Amnesty doesn't examine Hamas, only Israel. It ignores violations by terrorist organizations. We find the unfortunate situation that somehow there's no difference between terrorists targeting civilians and democratic countries targeting terrorists.
SO ISRAEL IS THE FOCUS OF HUMAN-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS BECAUSE IT HAS DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS THAT MAKE PROTEST POSSIBLE?
Look, violations by Israel are on the world's agenda, but Sudan's aren't. Human-rights organizations create an atmosphere in which dictatorial regimes dictate the human-rights agenda of the entire world.
IS WORLD PRESSURE THE REASON FOR SHARON'S DECISION TO WITHDRAW FROM GAZA?
That's why he told me he decided on it. The withdrawal shouldn't be unilateral. It should be connected to changes by the Palestinians. It's an illusion to think that the pressure on us will stop.
DOESN'T THE GAZA WITHDRAWAL HELP PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS, THOUGH?
It's clear that with [Abbas], there's a better chance for progress than with [Yasser] Arafat. But only if he is under strong pressure toward democratic reforms. The disengagement is unilateral, so it means zero pressure for reform.
WHEN YOU RESIGNED FROM SHARON'S CABINET, YOU CALLED THE PLAN A "TRAGIC MISTAKE."
We are missing a historic opportunity, with a new Palestinian President, to link all contacts to progress toward democracy. Instead, in some months, we will find ourselves in a situation of increased terror and a weakened Israeli society.
BUT ABBAS SAYS DEMOCRACY IS THE BASIS OF HIS POLICY. HE EVEN WANTS HAMAS TO RUN IN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS IN JULY.
If the Palestinian Authority is not fighting Hamas as a terrorist organization, then Hamas keeps its weapons. He's giving more and more time to the terror groups to strengthen themselves, and he's not competing with them to create better welfare for his people.
SHOULD SHARON MAKE SOME KIND OF CONCESSION TO ABBAS TO STRENGTHEN HIS STANDING WITH HIS OWN PEOPLE?
Sharon is refusing to make concessions to [Abbas], but he's making a huge concession to Hamas by withdrawing from Gaza. It encourages Hamas and Hizballah and al-Qaeda. It will hamper everyone around the world who's fighting terror.
DO YOU THINK SHARON IS ANXIOUS ABOUT THE WITHDRAWAL?
I'm sure he is. But he knows how not to show it. He's a general who goes ahead with the implementation of his plan, regardless.