Since then, Natan Sharansky has learned to be a husband, father, author and politician. He is a sought-after public speaker on immigrant issues, foreign policy and especially on issues of human rights and democracy, and his latest book "Case for Democracy," is reportedly required reading in the Bush administration. He is also number 11 on the Likud election slate.
Ynetnews spoke to Sharansky on the eve of his special anniversary.
20 years in Israel is a long time. How do you feel?
"Yes, it's a long time, but I very much feel like am still in paradise. 20 years ago when I came, I was physically thrown from hell to paradise, from prison to the kotel (Western Wall) in just one day.
But there is only one way to go from a high like that, and that is down. But I still feel I am in paradise. Of course there are things to fix, lots of problems to work on. But I am still in paradise."
How will you celebrate the anniversary of your release?
"Every year we have a seder, like on the first night of Pesach. My children ask me questions – every year they have to come up with new questions - and I re-tell them the story of how I went to prison and how I finally made aliya."
Tell me about your life in politics: Did you accomplish what you set out to achieve?
"10 years ago, I had done all the things I could outside of politics, so I felt I had to take that step to open gates that were closed to immigrants in our society.
And I believe Yisrael B'Aliya was a big historic achievement. It accelerated greatly all the process of integration. For the first time in history, immigrants became ministers, Knesset members, and – perhaps even more important – hundreds became city council members and dozens became deputy mayors. This is where the real work of integration is taking place.
I always said that our success would be measured by the degree to which we are no longer needed. Now that immigrants have been elected to major party's Knesset slates on their own merits, rather than by "protected" spots for immigrants, we can say that has occurred."
"Sure. All these years I've tried to promote what I believe should have been the major lesson from our victory over the Soviet Union; namely, the notion that world security and stability can be reached only by linking the issue of international relations to the question of democracy and human rights." (Sharansky tried to get the West to make that connection in the 1970s, a long time before he entered Israeli politics. That's what got him in trouble with the Soviets –A.F.).
"But it never became policy of the Israeli government. This very important lesson was abandoned by the free world.
Take the American policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. I warned the Americans in the early 90s, after Washington saved Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, that it was a wasted opportunity when America was not ready to link its assistance with any minimal demand for reform, more liberal immigration laws and other things. It is one of the best proofs that America still refuses to learn the lesson that their stability is dependent on increasing freedom."
Did the West learn anything from September 11?
"President Bush did; that's why he decided to take on two regimes that had to be challenged: Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. These were two regimes that were openly giving support and becoming a political base for terror.
How did these regimes become so strong? Saddam Hussein could never have become so strong (and such a threat) if he was never appeased by the free world and by the Americans in the 1980s. That should be an important lesson: now you've got to fight a dictator, but only because you propped him up for so long…"
How do you rate Israeli democracy?
"We are a democracy, a very free society. We have a very vibrant democracy.
But democracy doesn't mean that everything goes smoothly. There are a lot of challenges. People are people, they have temptations and they have inclinations to find the easy way to power and sometimes they cheat, sometimes they even commit awful violations of human rights.
This is true about Israel, and it is also true about America. Over the last year or two America has had lots of examples of serious challenges to democracy. What is happening in Guantanamo Bay… I don't think everybody appreciates what a great challenge it is for democracy. Why should we think it could never happen in Israel?
At the same time, because we have democracy, there are built-in mechanisms to protect against it (corruption). Take a look at all the politicians who tried to bribe their ways to power in the last elections – you can see what happened with them."
"I can tell you from my own experience in the Likud: Those who spent a lot of money to get elected were not elected. Because the system is healthy and powerful (and protects against corruption).
And I'm not talking about 100,000 people in the public. Even a vote including 3,000 people is wiser than one including 10. And of course the fact that some parties don't have any nominations committee, sometimes it rests on one person's shoulders alone, and the fact that we have one new party that is really three parties (because it is getting support from one-third of the Israeli population). This is very dangerous.
But we have proved many times that we have strong checks-and-balances to protect against this –the press, political opposition, the courts, public organizations, through demonstrations.
Democracy means constant struggle for justice. It doesn't come by itself.
And the difference between democracies and non-democracies is not that one allows human rights violations and the other doesn't. The difference is that there is constant struggle to prevent violations in a democracy, whereas there is no such struggle in a dictatorship. The concept simply doesn't exist."
So Israeli society is free and open. But Disengagement process wasn't exactly textbook democracy
"You've hit on a strong point. This was the source of my fight with Prime Minister Sharon, it was the reason I fought against the plan, and it was the reason I resigned from the government.
First of all, I said at the time that disengagement would only strengthen Hamas, and that's why I resigned.
But I believe the prime minister ignored the need to strengthen democracy during this dramatic process. That's why I think we needed a referendum.
After disengagement I wrote an article called "The Civil War that wasn't," in which I said that every side tried their best to prevent civil war.
After what happened at Amona last week, I couldn't write the same piece now. There is a huge difference; unfortunately, the difference is Ehud Olmert trying to prove he is a strong leader at any price. He understood he didn't have the same backing as Sharon, and he wanted to prove himself. And we saw the unfortunate result."
In your book you write about "double thinkers"; citizens of tyrannical regimes that are forced to say one thing but clearly believe another. Do you think Palestinians and other Arabs fall into this category?
"Of course they do. Just take a plane ride from Saudi Arabia or Iran to Paris and watch how quickly people change their clothes, their mannerisms, their language. Of course they are double thinkers – they've spent their entire lives trying to break free of these restrictions.
As for the Palestinians, there is no doubt they are also double thinkers. What – do think the majority wants to continue living in refugee camps? They are so happy with no civil society? I know many Palestinians who are angry with Israel because we allowed Yasser Arafat destroy the beginnings of Palestinian society. Do you really think they don't want a free economy, that they'd rather live with the constant racket of Yasser Arafat?
The entire PA is divided amongst different Fatah gangs who demand protection money. You think people prefer to live with this reality than to be free? Of course not.
Shimon Peres told me in 2001 to stop calling Arafat a corrupt dictator. "Of course his is," he said, "but he is loved by his people."
I told him that Arafat is loved by Palestinians exactly the same way Russians loved Stalin."
What about Israeli Arabs – on one hand they live in the free society of Israel, but are they really free to criticize Israeli Arab politicians?
"They are in a free society, that's why they are able to elect a variety of candidates. The thing is – why are their views becoming more and more extreme?
I think it is a direct result from the increasing extremism of the Palestinian Authority and the direct result of some of our principled concessions to the Islamic movement….
In my experience as minister of housing, and minister of the interior, and minister of industry and trade, is that most people, the overwhelming majority of Arabs want to be loyal Israeli citizens and want to continue enjoying the huge advantages they enjoy as Israeli citizens.
But we are not generous enough to those who really are loyal citizens and supporters, and not tough enough against those who are constantly breaking Israeli law."
Is this the country you dreamed about in the Soviet punishment cell?
"Whenever you dream of paradise and you suddenly find yourself in that world, you quickly find out the next world is not exactly the way you imagined it. You know, the roof leaks and my car was stolen and my contractor deceived me and a million other things that make you a "real" Israeli.
But does that mean I don't like living here? Or that I don't enjoy my wonderful house in Jerusalem or being Israeli? Of course I enjoy it. There are always improvements to be made or to prevent some of our problems."