Enemy or Friend?

Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens have been going through a process of radicalization for the last generation, but since the Al Aqsa Intifada broke out nearly 14 months ago, that process has taken a bitter leap forward. Days after the intifada began and rioting Palestinians were shot to death by Israeli troops, Arabs across the Galilee also rioted, and 13 were killed by police. In a few cases since then, Arab citizens of Israel — nearly all Islamic fundamentalists — have been involved in terror attacks.

At the same time, the public statements of Israeli Arab leaders have become more extreme. Expressions of support for the intifada have become almost commonplace. But what Knesset Member Azmi Bishara said and did was unprecedented.

In a speech on June 5, 2000 — a week and a half after Israel’s pullout from Lebanon — he said, “Hezbollah won, and for the first time since 1967, we tasted the flavor of victory. Hezbollah has the right to flaunt its achievement and humiliate Israel.”

Bishara’s speech was at a celebration thrown by his political party in Umm el-Fahm, the capital of Israeli Arab radicalism. Bishara doesn’t deny making the remarks. But what really got him in trouble with the law was his appearance a year later at a gathering in the Syrian birthplace of longtime dictator Hafez Assad, to mark the one-year anniversary of the dictator’s death. The host at the gathering was Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the guest list included Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Palestinian terror chieftain Ahmed Jibril, who sat next to Bishara.

The tenor of this assembly was that of an Arab war council. Bishara paid tribute to Hezbollah’s “determination, persistence and heroism,” and called on the Arab world to support the intifada so Palestinians “can wage resistance” with the same success.

Bishara does not deny saying this.

For those two speeches — in Umm el-Fahm and in Syria — the Knesset voted to lift Bishara’s parliamentary immunity, allowing Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein to indict him for giving support to a terrorist organization. It is the first time in Israel’s history that a Member of Knesset (MK) will be prosecuted for things he said.

The case spotlights the dilemma regarding where to draw the line between freedom of speech and subversion. A number of Arab MKs have been and are being investigated for expressing support for terrorism against Israel, yet it is fitting that Bishara be the test case. Along with Islamic Movement leader Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, Bishara is the ascendant political power among Israel’s Arab community, and except for Yossi Beilin, Bishara is the most original and effective agent for change this country has seen in the last decade.

Bishara authored and popularized the idea that Israel should not be a Jewish State, but rather a “state of all its citizens,” a demand made by virtually all Israeli Arabs except those who insist Israel should be an Islamic state. He’s the only Arab to run for prime minister, pulling out on the eve of the 1999 election to hurt incumbent Binyamin Netanyahu’s chances. And when the beneficiary of that gesture, Ehud Barak, badly disappointed Arab voters and then waged war against the intifada, Bishara, in February, spearheaded the first-ever Israeli Arab election boycott, which turned out to be a resounding show of strength.

Now, at 45, he has yet another provocative “first” to add to his resume.

Presenting his side of the story in a telephone interview, Bishara at times sounds like he’s taking his cue from Bill Clinton’s defense in the Monica Lewinsky “It depends on what you mean by the word is.”

“I never called for the use of violence, never called for terror, never gave support to Hezbollah, never identified with Hezbollah,” he says, answering the charges in Rubinstein’s draft indictment.

But isn’t using the word heroic to describe Hezbollah’s actions — which included killing Israeli soldiers and civilians — the same as supporting it?

“No,” Bishara replies. “Many Israeli commentators have described Hezbollah’s actions as heroic.”

He says his appearance at the Syrian gathering was not intended as a gesture of solidarity with Syria, Hezbollah or anybody else at the assembly. “I didn’t invite those people; I was invited on my own,” he notes.

The issue of whether he’s entitled to immunity as an MK doesn’t seem to interest Bishara, or at least did not in our interview. Even the democratic issue — freedom of speech — is secondary. The main thing for him is the politics of the matter, the rightness of his position. Hezbollah, in his view, was totally justified in its guerrilla war against what he calls Israeli “occupation” and “colonialism,” and so are the Palestinians.

This, he believes, is what makes him innocent, and this is what makes the Israeli judicial and political system, which are trying to punish him, guilty.

“What gives my statements legitimacy is the fact that colonialism and occupation are bad, and people have the right to resist it,” Bishara emphasizes.

And if the situation were turned around — if, say, a Syrian citizen traveled to Israel and praised the government for fighting the Palestinians and Hezbollah — would that be legitimate?

“No,” Bishara replies. “When one’s people are fighting against occupation, it is not legitimate for him to speak in favor of it.”

Rubinstein is known for being cautious about going after MKs who call for violence, but the Bishara case, for him, was cut and dried. He told the Knesset that in the past there were always divergent legal opinions on whether to go after an MK for incitement, but that in the Bishara case, he heard no such dissent.

Many liberal doves in the Knesset agree with the decision to indict Bishara. “A democracy has to defend itself,” notes MK Anat Ma’or of the left-wing Meretz party.

MK Tommy Lapid summed up the feeling among many liberals: “We all have a problem. Nobody wants to limit freedom of speech, but on the other hand, we all understand that Bishara exploits this freedom unjustly. ” Over the last year, Israeli Arab MKs have become so extreme,” Lapid continues. “A democracy has to set certain limits.”