In early April the rumors about Dr. Azmi Bishara, the most famous Arab Knesset member, began circulating on the Internet: Bishara is afraid to return to Israel; Bishara intends to resign from the Knesset; the Israeli Security Agency has decided to accuse Bishara of treason and espionage. The gag order preventing the publication of any information about Bishara’s actions made the rumors all the more intriguing. What did Bishara, in fact, do?
Bishara, a Christian Palestinian citizen of Israel from Nazareth, established the National Democratic Assembly known as Balad in 1995 and became a Knesset member in 1996. Since then he has been interrogated several times by the Israeli Security Agency, and has been charged and found not guilty twice: once for organizing visits to Syria for Israeli Arabs who wished to visit family members and a second time for speeches he gave in Syria and Israel praising Hezbollah’s resistance in southern Lebanon and Palestinian opposition in the occupied territories. His visit to Beirut following last year’s Lebanon war, alongside his claim that Israel was committing war crimes in Lebanon and carrying out genocide against Shiite Muslims, was, for many Israelis, yet another indication that Bishara has been using his parliamentary immunity to harm Israel. Many Jewish members of the Knesset have argued for years that Bishara is a fifth column and that Israeli democracy has a right and indeed an obligation to defend itself against the Bishara threat.
But what, one might ask, are Bishara’s new offenses? It is, after all, highly unlikely that he is a spy on the payroll of a foreign entity. And while one may not like his uncompromising opposition to Israeli and American regional policies and his admiration for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s militancy and strategic intelligence, expressing such views does not in and of itself jeopardize Israel’s existence. Bishara, it seems, is a threat not because of any particular action or statement but because he has become a symbol of a new kind of opposition within Israel.
During the past few months, political activists and members of the Palestinian intellectual elite within Israel, all of whom are Israeli citizens, have drafted four documents that articulate how they conceive the state’s future. The underlying assumption of all of these documents is that as long as Israel is defined as a Jewish state, its laws will always fall short of basic democratic principles and, more particularly, the right of all its citizens to full equality.
The authors of the document called “The Democratic Constitution” maintain that the Arab citizens of Israel should be considered a “homeland minority” with national rights. The idea is to transform Israel into a bilingual and multicultural democracy for all its citizens, rather than a Jewish democracy, which they argue is an oxymoron. Such transformation would inevitably mean changing the laws of citizenship and immigration so that citizenship would no longer be granted automatically to any Jew wishing to immigrate but rather to anyone born within Israel’s territory or whose parent or spouse is a citizen, or to people persecuted due to their political beliefs.
Not long after the documents’ publication, Israel’s second-largest newspaper, Ma’ariv, reported a meeting between the head of the security agency, Yuval Diskin, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. During the meeting Diskin warned Olmert that the radicalization of Israel’s Arab citizens constitutes a “strategic threat to the state’s existence.” Diskin added that “the proliferation of the visionary documents published by the different Arab elites in Israel is particularly worrisome, [since] the documents are united by their conception of Israel as a state for all its citizens and not a Jewish state.” The head of the security services concluded that “the separatist and subversive patterns represented by the elites might engender a new direction and mobilize the masses.”
Balad sent a letter protesting Diskin’s assertions, arguing that legitimate political activity whose aim is to change the state’s character should not be considered subversive or dangerous. According to Ha’aretz, the Israeli Security Agency replied that it “would foil the activity of anyone seeking to harm Israel’s Jewish or democratic character, even if that activity was carried out by legal means.”
Diskin’s words are telling. He admits not only that anyone who strives to alter the Jewish character of the state is considered an enemy and will be treated as such but that the secret service has no respect for democratic practices and procedures. It is precisely within the context of the four historic documents that one should understand the recent accusations against Bishara. More than anything else, Bishara constitutes a symbolic threat, since he personifies the recent demand of the Palestinian elite to transform Israel from a Jewish democracy to a democracy for all its citizens.