Arab lawmaker quits Knesset as probe begins

Israeli Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara has abruptly ended a parliamentary career built on denouncing the Jewish state from enemy capitals and then dodging charges of sedition at home.

After weeks spent abroad on what he called routine travels, Bishara turned up at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on April 22 to submit a letter of resignation to the Knesset.

The move followed an announcement by the Israeli police that Bishara, who heads the predominantly Arab party Balad, was under investigation for allegations that could not be published due to a court-issued gag order that was extended to Wednesday.

Bishara, 50, has denied wrongdoing but made clear he is in no hurry to face the probe.

“I decided to tender my resignation today, after leaving the country, because I know that I would not have been able to leave the country for three years, the time it would take the court cases and investigations,” he told Al-Jazeera.

“Exile is not an option. Return is definite, but the matter will take some time and arrangements,” said Bishara, a Christian from the religiously mixed town of Nazareth.

For many mainstream Israelis, it was goodbye and good riddance. In an Israeli Arab leadership increasingly considered disloyal among the Jewish majority, Bishara stood out for his especially provocative antics.

He visited Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon to voice outrage at Israel’s military offensive last year. He met with Syrian President Bashar Assad as well as radical Palestinian leaders, always ready to praise the ethos of armed “resistance” against Israel.

Bishara overcame repeated attempts to have him tried for fraternizing with Israel’s enemies, invoking his parliamentary immunity from prosecution. This enraged rightist Israelis, who warned of a “fifth column” among the country’s Arab minority.

Some moderate Israeli Arabs also sought to distance themselves from Bishara, so astounded by his temerity as to suggest it was all an elaborate cover for a role as an Israeli spy or covert diplomat.

“The definition of Knesset member Bishara as a ‘collaborator’ is one of the ways to explain the behavior, conduct and statements of this man, in oratory and in writing,” Alex Fishman wrote in Yediot Achronot. “He has stretched all the ropes to the breaking point, tested the limits of the tolerance of Israeli democracy, and each time succeeded in establishing a new limit.”

Balad, which holds three of the Knesset’s 120 seats, calls for Israel to abandon Zionism and become a “state of all its citizens.” That is out of the question for most Israelis, who want the country to remain a democratic Jewish homeland.

News of Bishara’s departure and rumors of his legal worries, which may involve charges from the counter-terrorism and counter-espionage Shin Bet agency, was greeted with regret in some corner of the Israeli intelligentsia.

There was empathy and even admiration for the scintillating intellectual, who speaks four languages, including a Hebrew more erudite than that of many Jewish Israelis.

One veteran commentator, Yaron London, saw in Bishara a sort of latter-day version of the Diaspora’s old political mavericks — the revolutionaries and utopianists.

“I once said to Azmi Bishara that he is more Jewish than I,” London said. “The heart of a Jew, even one who lives among Jews in their state, is the heart of a minority figure, but a Christian Arab who is a citizen of the Jewish state is an island within an island, a minority within a minority.”

“Bishara, a brilliant and arrogant intellectual, bossy and stormy, charming and easily offended, has no time to waste. He realized that the Jews would not accept his vision unless they were greatly weakened — and therefore they must be weakened.”