An Arab Prime Minister?

For the first time ever, an Arab citizen of Israel is running for prime minister. He is first-term Knesset member Azmi Bishara, one of the leading intellectuals in the Arab world, and one of the most provocative politicians of any ethnicity in Israel.

Bishara’s candidacy is opposed by the Palestinian Authority, which fears that he will take Israeli Arab votes from Labor leader Ehud Barak and thereby help Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu win again.

The conservative Israeli Arab political establishment is also against Bishara’s candidacy. To them, he is acting the “upstart,” striking out on his own without first gaining support from community elders, and thereby leapfrogging his more experienced Arab colleagues in the Knesset.

Yet recent polls showed that Bishara is by far the most popular choice for prime minister among Israeli Arab voters, who cast more than 10 percent of the ballots in the last election.

Even before entering the Knesset in 1996, Bishara, 43, a philosophy instructor at the West Bank’s Bir Zeit University, made a considerable impact on Israeli politics. In the early 1990s, a provocative idea began filtering into the national debate over Israel’s character as a Jewish, democratic state. The notion was that a formally Jewish state was inherently discriminatory against its 900,000 Arab citizens, and that the only way to equality was in transforming Israel from the state of the Jewish people into a “state of all its citizens.”

A corollary to this idea was that Israeli Arabs should not only have full equality with Israeli Jews, but also “cultural autonomy” — a sort of local version of Black Power, which argues that Israeli Arabs have a fundamentally different, even contradictory, political identity to that of Israeli Jews, and that they should be able to freely develop that identity by, for instance, running their own school system and radio and TV stations as they see fit. The chief originator and popularizer of these ideas was Bishara.

Ever since he began talking about running for prime minister two years ago, he’s been gathering enemies on the right. Knesset member Michael Kleiner, head of the Knesset’s Land of Israel Front, proposed a bill that outlawed all non-Jewish candidates for the post. The Knesset secretariat, however, determined that the bill was racist and removed it from the agenda.

A little more than a month ago, Bishara set off a new storm by declaring that the Islamic guerrilla organization Hezbollah, which is fighting Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, was “a brave organization that had taught Israel a lesson — it can have occupation or it can have peace.”

He stood by the statement even after a spate of Hezbollah killings of Israeli soldiers, and even after Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein opened an investigation into whether Bishara had broken the law with this utterance.

Bishara emphasized that he was not “rooting” for Hezbollah to kill Israelis.

“I’m very sorry over each young person, Lebanese or Israeli, killed in south Lebanon. I would have to be mad to think it is good for young people to be killed,” he said. But he insisted that the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon was an invasion of foreign territory, and that Hezbollah was right to fight against it. Bishara also pointed out that he is by no means a “follower” of Hezbollah.

“They are a religious movement — Islamic fundamentalist, probably fanatic,” he said.

Bishara is a thoroughly secular Christian, an ex-communist who earned his doctorate in East Germany. Starting out in politics at his Nazareth high school, he continued as a leading Arab student activist at Hebrew University, where he took his share of blows from right-wing Jewish students on campus.

In recent years, Bishara’s proposal to make Israel a “state of all its citizens” has joined Jewish law, or halacha, as a rising ideological challenger to Zionism. The idea has gained wide allegiance among Israeli Arabs.

With a personal style that offsets intensity with dry humor, and with his forthright presentation of new, radical ideas, Bishara holds great appeal for Arab intellectuals, and even for some left-wing Jewish ones.

Taped to the wall opposite the door of his Knesset office — the first thing a visitor sees — is a photocopy of a painting of the late Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, father of “pan-Arabism” and bitter enemy of Israel. Next to the picture of Nasser is a poster of Mordechai Vanunu, the imprisoned Israeli nuclear tattletale whom Bishara called “the first citizen to link concern over Israel’s future with concern over the future of the region as a whole.”

Bishara is a striking figure, with the look and something of the air of one of those defiant, dashing young European intellectuals. He has a modified Zapata mustache, a sweep of thick, black hair, and smokes cigarillos. In an interview in his Knesset office, Bishara, wearing a blue-green suit, leaned back with relaxed elegance behind his desk, with a permanent brooding look on his face. (An unnamed colleague was quoted once as describing Bishara’s political stance as “somewhere between George Habash and Giorgio Armani.”)

He knows he’s not going to be elected prime minister. He said that he’s running because none of the other candidates are taking Israeli Arab issues seriously enough. But Bishara has made it clear that he wants Netanyahu out. He indicated that if Center Party leader Yitzhak Mordechai drops out of the race and supports Barak, he might do the same so that Barak would have a shot at an absolute majority and victory in the first round on May 17.

The major candidates for prime minister have been criticized for excessive vagueness, for steering away from any policy statement that might turn off voters. Bishara’s candidacy will undoubtedly offer a sharp contrast.