Jerusalem - One of Israel’s most outspoken and controversial lawmakers is under investigation in a case that has caused a national uproar and may have driven him from the country — even as the nature of the charges against him remain a state secret.
What is publicly known is that Azmi Bishara, the firebrand leader of the Arab nationalist Balad party, is suspected of serious security violations.
Bishara was abroad when the existence of the investigation was leaked April 8, and he has yet to return to the country or to state whether he intends to do so.
Even after the initial leak, the mere existence of the investigation remained banned from publication for a full week, causing the media to skirt elaborately around the case. On April 15, a Petah Tikva magistrate’s court rescinded the gag order on the case’s existence, following a petition by the Balad party and local media organizations. But at the request of the security services, the judge upheld the ban on detailing the charges.
Despite the secrecy of the investigation — or because of it, according to Bishara — the case has touched off a furious political and ethnic fracas.
Bishara’s face was splashed across the front pages of Hebrew- and Arabic-language Israeli newspapers for days after the case was first leaked to the Arab-Israeli newspaper A-Sinara. Even the country’s embattled president did not get such extensive coverage after the initial reports that he was suspected of sexual misconduct.
Bishara has yet to be charged with wrongdoing; the investigation reportedly is ongoing. But the uproar has added a climactic element to a series of recent events that have combined to deepen mistrust between Arab and Jewish Israelis in the wake of last summer’s war in Lebanon. Various Arab political statements and initiatives have sparked Jewish fears of Arab radicalization. Jewish reactions, in turn, have sparked suspicions among Arabs of a looming crackdown on their freedom of speech.
The Bishara case has brought these mutual suspicions to a head, with many Arabs claiming that the investigation is a government attempt to silence critics, while Jewish commentators speculate that Bishara must be guilty of some act of disloyalty — typical, some charge, of his community as a whole.
Bishara, 51, is uniquely positioned to become a cause célèbre. Born in Nazareth to a Christian family, he founded Israel’s first Arab student union while studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A member of the Arab-led Hadash Communist Party, he earned a doctorate in philosophy in communist East Germany. In 1996, after a stint in academia, he broke with the communists to form Balad — a Hebrew acronym for National Democratic Alliance, forming the Arabic word for homeland — which advocates turning Israel into a “state of all its citizens,” as distinct from an explicitly Jewish state. He ran a quixotic 1999 campaign for prime minister, the first Arab ever to do so. Indicative of his stature, he is one of the only Israeli Arab figures commonly described in the international Arab media as a major Palestinian “thinker” and as a possible future president of Palestine.
Before news of Bishara’s legal woes first broke, Israeli reports said he planned to resign from the Knesset. The Jerusalem Post accused him of “escaping” the country — although it is physically impossible to leave without the authorities’ permission.
Bishara’s party denied that he planned to resign and said it expected him to return. Bishara himself kept mum and remained in Amman, reportedly to promote his new book.
On the second day of the furor, Balad declared that the security services were persecuting the party because of its opposition to last summer’s Lebanon war. “This will not shake Balad from its beliefs, including those of a ‘nation for all its citizens’,” said an April 9 party statement — the closest it came to suggesting that its leader was under investigation.
Meanwhile, news sites published a daily diet of rumors — Bishara will or won’t quit the Knesset, will or won’t return to Israel. Still unclear to the public was why he would stay away.
Right-wing opposition lawmakers immediately raised a chorus of criticism, recalling what they depicted as a long record of disloyalty to the state. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu said it would be better if Bishara didn’t return. Effi Eitam of the National Union party asked the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee to determine if Bishara had left the country permanently and if that was connected to a police investigation into his controversial visit to Lebanon and Syria last September.
“Even as the [Lebanon] war raged, I warned that Knesset member Bishara’s visits to enemy countries, while thousands of Katyusha shells hit Israel’s cities, constitute treason and endanger Israel’s security,” said Eitam, a retired general.
The chairman of the National Religious Party, Zevulun Orlev, resubmitted a previously rejected bill to prohibit anyone who visited an enemy country from running for the Knesset. Orlev also proposed legislation requiring that Knesset members swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
“I hope that the [governing] coalition, which thwarted this elementary piece of legislation six months ago, will realize its mistake this time, in light of the Bishara affair,” Orlev told reporters last week.
Bishara and his party’s other two lawmakers, Jamal Zahalka and Wasel Taha, were questioned after they returned from Syria last September. Travel by Israeli citizens to states defined as enemies is illegal without permission from the Knesset. Bishara has been charged in the past with visiting an enemy and in connection with statements he made supporting “resistance.” In an unprecedented event, the Knesset stripped Bishara’s immunity in 2001 so he could stand trial for his political speeches. The Supreme Court dismissed the criminal charges against him in February 2006.
This time, however, the case is believed to be security-related, not political. According to local Arab media sources, Bishara was questioned under warning by police twice in March. Nevertheless, he was allowed to leave the country later that month. He traveled to Qatar for a planned appearance as a commentator on the Arab League summit for Al Jazeera satellite network. He later spoke as a panelist at an international journalists’ forum sponsored by the network.
In a brief conversation with this reporter at the conference, he spoke about the summit, but gave no indication of his legal troubles. He did, however, appear unusually worn and quiet.
Bishara returned to Israel to attend a wedding April 5 before leaving for Amman — again with official authorization, according to Yediot Aharonot.
On April 15th he gave an interview to Al Jazeera in Qatar and confirmed his intention to quit the Knesset. He also expressed fear of arrest if he returned to Israel.
Many Arab Israelis say he should return to clear his name. “If he is sure of his innocence then he must be here and defend himself and we will be behind him,” said lawmaker Abbas Zakoor, a moderate Islamist associated with the United Arab List.
Bishara’s case comes amid a flurry of recent statements from Israeli officialdom indicating deep mistrust of Israeli Arabs as a group. Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin was quoted in March as saying that Israeli Arabs are a “strategic threat” to the state. The Prime Minister’s Office sent a letter to the editor of a Balad’s journal warning that the Shin Bet “will thwart the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, even if such activity is sanctioned by the law,” Haaretz reported.
In the Arab community, spokesmen across the spectrum say the case was trumped up in order to limit Israeli Arabs’ freedom of speech and punish views at odds with the Jewish Zionist consensus.
“We feel the state wants to divide us into ‘good citizens’ and ‘bad citizens’,” said reporter Mohammed Watad of the Nazareth-based Kul al-Arab newspaper. “If you are good according to our definition you can be accepted and if you are not the state will make your life difficult, it will restrict you.”
Arabs also point to a Knesset bill, due for a vote next month, that would outlaw the northern faction of the Islamic movement of Israel. The movement’s leader, Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, also voices forthrightly anti-Zionist views.
“Israeli democracy is getting weaker and less tolerant of different views,” said Nazir Majally, an Israeli Arab political analyst.
Some Jewish analysts, too, warn of negative fallout should Bishara leave the stage. As the first Israeli Arab leader to write in depth about the importance of the Holocaust, he is a symbol of reconciliation as well as defiance. “If he leaves,” said political consultant Doubi Schwartz, “he can strengthen the trend of the Arab Israelis to boycott the political game.”