Arab-Palestinian Knesset member Azmi Bishara explains to Amira Howeid the motives behind the Israeli media's campaign against him and how it affects the Arab community
Israel, it seems, is at war with one man. The Israeli media and politicians from across the political spectrum are up in arms against him, the Shabak (intelligence) is said to be preparing a file on him and his fate could have an impact on 1.3 million Arabs living in Israel.
This might be the kind of attention someone as high-profile as Azmi Bishara expects when faced with accusations of treason. Then again, it might not. Bishara is, after all, not just an outspoken Arab-Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament the Knesset but an embodiment of Israel's paradoxes and its complex relationship with itself and its Arab-Palestinian community.
Over the past 11 years this Christian Arab- Palestinian politician, intellectual, novelist, philosopher and citizen of Israel has struggled to redefine the status and identity of the Palestinians whose lands, towns and villages were occupied by the Jewish state between 1948 and 1949 and who later became Israeli citizens. While Israel sought to assimilate them and "Israelise" their collective identity, Bishara and his National Arab Alliance party begged to differ.
Their vision, which has gained momentum within the Arab community (known as the 1948 Arabs) insists that Israel should be a state for all its citizens and not -- as it now perceives itself -- a Jewish state. A Jewish state, they argue, defies the logics of democracy because it does not equate between its Jewish and non-Jewish populations. Even more alarming for Israeli nationalists is the fact that such a position could represent the nucleus of a bi-national secular state.
Three weeks ago Bishara left Israel for an Arab tour. Given recent developments it is now unclear when, or if, he will be returning. A week after his departure, the Israeli press began a campaign of incitement against him, the opening shot being the publication of news reports that he will resign from the Knesset while in Qatar. This was followed by leaks to the media concerning a criminal investigation against him. But with a court-imposed gag on the nature of the investigation it is not clear what is actually being investigated though the Israeli press has hinted at charges involving "contact with the enemy during wartime".
Although Bishara is no stranger to prosecution based on similar allegations -- in the past he has always been found innocent - he now believes that "the rules of the game have changed" and that the target is not just him but the entire Palestinian-Arab community living in Israel.
"There is a decision to end our political stream and the unprecedented challenge it represents for them," he told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from Doha. "The message is: Palestinian-Arabs who support us will be regarded as people working against Israel. And to do that they are targeting the head of the movement. They cannot tolerate an Arab Knesset member who refutes their claims of democratic practice and argues that Zionism defeats the notion of democracy."
By presenting Bishara's case as one with security dimensions, "Israel will have more tools to fight us with," he said, "and it is evident that they've been preparing a huge file for over a year now which involved monitoring all my moves and recording all my telephone conversations without a court order. It makes me wonder what parliamentary immunity means in practice."
It is rumoured that the secret police have records of phone conversations Bishara conducted with "hostile" Arab figures, including Hizbullah members, during Israel's war against Lebanon last summer.
Such "security fabrications", in Bishara's words, could affect international solid5arity with him since the suggestion being propagated "translates into providing the enemy with information which ultimately transforms me from a political, cultural and intellectual figure to an agent for a hostile state or terrorist organisation as they call it".
"This changes the logic of things because I have my political views, I publish articles, I give interviews and I talk on the phone but I do not enjoy a security position or have access to security information in the first place in order to deliver it. In fact, it is clear that these hostile states or organisations like Hizbullah and Hamas are more informed about Israel's security than we are. We are men of thought, culture and literature."
Bishara denies all the rumoured charges against him and says they "disgust" him. And because he realises the rules of the game have changed he has yet to decide if he will play by the new rules.
"It is out of the question that someone like myself should sit with prosecutors and answer their questions about my phone calls, what I say to my friends, what did I mean by this word or in this article with all the humiliation it involves."
The active involvement of the Israeli left alongside the extreme right in teaming up against Bishara in the current media campaign against him comes as no surprise. "The Israeli left and right stood together during the first weeks of the war on Lebanon last summer and the same scenario is repeating itself with me. They're all united against the path that we chose which rejects Zionism and the Zionist nature [of Israel], our emphasis on Arab identity, extending our cultural and civilisational roots to the Arab world and our emphasis on the fact that there are two nations and that we are not merely a minority."
A leading Palestinian intellectual, Bishara's popularity extends across the Arab world. Not only did his movement contribute to breaking many of the political taboos imposed on the 1948 Palestinian community, his eloquence and staunch pan-Arab stands helped redefine the term "Israeli-Arab" which for decades was treated with suspicion across the Arab world.
This might be good news for the Arabs, but why would Israel tolerate a vocal Arab- Palestinian who supports resistance?
"Israel has a problem of course," says Bishara, "and [its leaders] are not trying to redefine the borders and prevent us from expressing such views. But we do not ask anything of Israel in this regard. We are against the Israeli aggression on Lebanon and we support people's right in resisting occupation. We do not support a specific form of resistance and we oppose the targeting of civilians in this context. But in the context of citizenship and activism within a political framework we have to distinguish between people like us, Palestinians and Arabs, whose lands were occupied, and our right to express ourselves about resisting occupation and actually being directly involved in resistance. There is a difference between our liaisons as democratic Palestinians and Arabs with the rest of the Arab world and making our position known and being part of the resistance... Of course Israel cannot tolerate resistance but then freedom [fighters] do not want Israel's tolerance in the first place."
Israel, says Bishara, suffers from an identity crisis. "But then I have one too," he admits. "I have a problem tolerating them just as they have a problem tolerating me. In the past five years I feel I have grown 50 years older as a result of the conflicts and having to go to the Knesset every day and actually sit with people I regard as war criminals. I did it out of responsibility for my people even though it exhausted and drained me. But I'm not talking about predicaments here, I'm talking about equilibrium. They now want to change that equilibrium so that we no longer take the stands that we do."
When Bishara took what he considered a democratic stand following Israel's war on Lebanon last year by visiting Beirut's southern suburb Al-Dahia -- Hizbullah's stronghold, Israelis went berserk. "It's ABC political work for a Palestinian democrat like myself who exists as part of the political entity that launched the aggression to show solidarity with the victims of this aggression... [The Israelis] in turn decided this is participating in resistance. I reject that completely."
During a war, he said, people talk to each other on the phone and they talk about the war. "But if we talk about the war this could be contact with the enemy. Turning every triviality between human beings who are Arabs -- and are naturally connected -- into transferring information to the enemy is simply an attempt to quash us. There is a big cultural misunderstanding here, a huge gap in understanding who we are."
Israel, says Bishara, perceives its Arabs as a minority who immigrated to Israel, requested an Israeli card and became Israelis. "And therefore when we communicate with other Arabs we are in contact with the enemy. We have a different perception. We are Arabs and our brothers and sisters in the Arab world are Arab, and we were Arab long before Israel was created [in 1948] and imposed its identity on us. Now it wants to impose its enemies as our enemies. They're not."
According to Bishara, his decision to resign from the Knesset was taken a year ago but his party wanted him to postpone it for a while. But now he has to decide whether or not he will resign and have his immunity lifted, "or if I should throw this immunity at them anyway". He will "eventually" return to Israel and the occupied territories, he says, but only after he has decided how to handle the campaign against him and the 1948 Arab-Palestinian community.
C a p t i o n : Azmi Bishara