Azmi Bishara, a contributing editor of this magazine, represents the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), a party advocating cultural autonomy and civil rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, in the Knesset. He spoke with Middle East Report on November 29, 2000, the day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak preempted a likely vote of no confidence by calling early elections. In 1999, Bishara ran for prime minister on the NDA ticket.
In early October, Palestinians inside Israel protested very vocally in solidarity with the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Why did that happen this time around, when it had not happened so much during the last intifada?
In general, I do not look for reasons. I look for explanations of phenomena. Most important here is the fact that the Arabs in Israel went out to the streets to protest because of the Palestinian issue, and not their own daily issues. We have Land Day to commemorate March 30, 1976: six Palestinians who were citizens of the state of Israel were killed by the police on that day. There were many manifestations of solidarity with the first intifada, and lots of demonstrations, even violent demonstrations, in solidarity with the Palestinians inside Lebanon. So October 2000 is not the first such manifestation, but let’s say it’s the longest and the most inclusive. It included most of the Arabs in Israel, something unknown in the past. In the last five years, Palestinians in Israel have become more assertive than they used to be about their national identity. With all the modesty in the world, I think that we — the National Democratic Assembly (NDA) — brought in this factor, as we entered the political arena. All the other parties, including the Islamic movement and the Communist Party, try to compete with us, or better, with our discourse. Talking about turning Israel into a state for all its citizens makes people more aware of their rights as citizens. The culmination of that process was my candidacy for prime minister, the first such candidacy for an Arab. Demonstrations of Arab students in Israeli universities reminded us of our movement as students in the 1970s; there was a clear search for meaning among young people. Probably three other factors contributed. The victory of Hizballah in Lebanon changed the balance for a lot of Arabs, especially for young people. As for the intifada itself, and the scenes at the al-Aqsa mosque, I do not think we should underestimate the Arab satellite channels that bring pictures to every house. Also, a lot of people had big hopes for Barak’s government — not us, of course — but lots of people, and the bigger the hopes, the bigger the disappointments and the frustrations.
Why did the protests cease after the first week of the intifada? Which political trends among Palestinians in Israel today have been strengthened by the intifada and which have been weakened?
There are three main streams that have emerged in the last three years: the Communist Party, which became the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, the Islamist movement and the NDA, a new party which won only two seats in the last parliament. Our new discourse, which is now clearly set apart from that of all other parties, has become the hegemonic discourse, if you want the Gramscian language. Without the party being hegemonic, its language, its culture, is now becoming dominant, especially among young people. With this, we’ve seen greater assertiveness concerning citizens’ rights, and in general a more democratic, secular rhetoric. At the same time, our discourse is very clear about what an Arab national identity is — a collective identity, against all kinds of tribal, religious and sectarian identities that may settle on Arabs. I believe — and probably I’m not objective here — that after the outbreak of the intifada, this third movement became stronger than ever. What we’re witnessing now is an attempt of the Israeli authorities, especially the security authorities, to create fear among the Arabs who live in Israel. That explains why these solidarity protests with the intifada could not proceed beyond the first week. The Arabs in Israel are not an economic or territorial unit. They are scattered all around the country, marginalized inside the Israeli economy, not outside it. They don’t have an independent or even semi-independent economy. After they protest, the next day they have to go to work for the Jews — either as employees or workers, or as people who sell services to the Jewish market. Since the economic interest of the bulk of Arab society is in daily life in the Jewish sector, they cannot allow themselves civil disobedience or separation for a very long time. Now the security forces and the press in Israel use this to create a kind of countermovement to contain our democratic movement. For example, they call us radical extremists who are disconnecting society from its interests, warning the Israeli Arabs that they have something to lose, unlike the West Bank and Gaza. Arabs do indeed have something to lose in Israel, so we hear more voices criticizing what’s happened.
You’re hearing Palestinian voices criticizing your strategy?
From inside, yes. All kinds of ex-leftists who work with the Jewish dialogue groups — organizations who are for integration of Arabs into Israeli society, like Givat Haviva and the Meretz initiatives — raise their voices against us. We also hear the traditional collaborators with the Zionist parties. But I think that Arab society has become immune to these critics. Arabs are much more aware of their rights, not only to eat and have a home and teach their children, but also their right to express their political views and not get shot for that, as citizens of the state of Israel, not only as Palestinians. Some say that Arabs in Israel are hopelessly marginalized both in Israel and in the Arab nation. We think that Palestinians who are living with the contradiction of being Arabs and Israeli citizens at the same time should turn it into an accelerator of development. This contradiction should become the source of the dialectic that pushes the Arab consciousness towards the most sophisticated consciousness, the most sophisticated understanding of national identity and of citizenship at the same time. A synthesis of Arab nationality and democracy would be the greatest gift we can give the Arab world. We should be turning this double marginalization into double responsibility. We are Palestinians and of Israel: so we should be even more active in expressing our political views and our national identity and citizenship, both to the Arab world and to Israel. Ours is a very, very hard mission. But we accept the challenge.
What explains the current crisis in Israeli politics?
Well, what is the crisis? I don’t think the crisis is the result of the intifada. I think the crisis occurred since this government could not sustain its coalition. It began with the issue of state and religion — the inability of the secular movement in Israel to go ahead with the separation of state and religion, and their resistance to the religious definition of who is a Jew. At the same time, the second contradiction that made this coalition impossible was the attempt to have peace with the Palestinians — while having the National Religious Party, Sharansky’s party and all kinds of right-wing parties in the coalition. Most of them, of course, left the coalition before Camp David. This is a minority government. Before the intifada, even before Camp David, Barak did not draw the right conclusions from that crisis. We warned, from the very beginning of his electoral campaign, in 1999, that it is impossible to reach peace with rejectionist points of view concerning settlements, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. But Barak thought that his so-called “generous” proposals to the Palestinians would be enough to change the Palestinian position. He assumed a dialogue with the Palestinians, though he did not really have a dialogue with the Palestinians. So the Israelis attempted to dictate their conditions, and that attempt to dictate conditions brought the explosion. [Barak] entered the final status negotiations as if he were negotiating in a transition period, dividing the main issues into bits and pieces. Third, he negotiates with the Palestinians as if he is handling a war. In negotiations, you have an equal partner and you do not presume the intentions of the partner — you ask. You hear what he says, or she says. You do not presume. In war, you presuppose the intentions of the other side and you build your strategies according to that hypothetical Palestinian. Then when it collapsed, he became angry. Why? Because the Arabs did not fit the image of them he had in his mind. This is an attitude which is characteristic of a soldier, but also of the “Zionist left,” which believes that it has the right image of the Arabs and then is surprised when the Arabs don’t live up to it.
What will happen in the upcoming election campaign? Do you see new coalitions forming among Palestinians in Israel?
No. There is a possibility, of course, of forming a coalition, if the Communists understand the need to deal with a new rising force [the NDA] as an equal force, to deal with it democratically. But they can’t do that, and that’s why we cannot achieve a coalition. And of course, the Communists and the Islamists will not go on one list. So what we will probably have is dreams of a list. What we will probably have is three streams: they will compete, and I think we will raise representation in Parliament to 11 or 12 members of the Knesset, instead of the ten we have right now. I think the NDA will have three or more members in Parliament. That’s what we’re planning, what we’re working on.
Is it safe to say the NDA will not support Barak?
No, it will not support Barak. We are thinking about a candidacy of our own — thinking, not deciding yet. Our position on Barak will depend on his program. If he will bring with him a settlement, a peaceful, just settlement, we’ll see. If he does not, I don’t think we could call for support.
Is it true that income for Arabs in Israel dropped 50 percent since the demonstrations?
During the demonstrations, yes. Afterward, people went back to work. In the first month, Jewish customers boycotted Arab services. So Arabs had a problem. Suddenly Israel imported its apartheid system to inside Israel — the apartheid system that separates Israel demographically from the West Bank. Now this means that the Arabs in Israel are not treated as second-class citizens, or third-class citizens, but as enemies. So the problem in time of crisis is not discrimination, but something else — exclusion. Citizenship becomes senseless. Even immunity for a member of parliament becomes senseless. Suddenly it becomes clear who is “us” and who is “them” and we are “them.” Some Arab villages were not invaded by the police, but occupied by the police. It was very, very dangerous.
What has happened to relations between Palestinians and Jews inside Israel on the popular level?
Tension, a lot of tension. We lived in total separation for some time. It’s coming back to a sort of normality, but there are no illusions of real ties anymore. Even the Arabs who voted for Meretz do not think anymore that integration with Israel in a Jewish state is possible. So one of the most important results of the Arab uprising inside Israel is the fact that the integration illusion collapsed. You cannot have integration in a Jewish state. It’s either a state of its citizens, with two nationalities inside, or there is no equality. But in a Jewish state, citizenship cannot be equal; Jewish citizenship comes first. What regulates the relationship between the individual and the state is not citizenship at all, but a loose affiliation. So this collapsed. Of course, this has implications on the personal level. People who are friends do not stop being friends, but generally economic relationships are not friendships. Relationships are entered into when people work together, learn together in universities, travel in the same buses. Suspicion is the relationship, with no illusions about the possibilities of integration.
Inside the Occupied Territories, this intifada has been characterized by an Islamized discourse. How should Palestinians contend with this seeming deepening of sectarianism?
It was Islamized in the media more than in reality. In the West Bank and Gaza, most of the intifada was of the Fatah and the PA, not Hamas. Inside Israel, [the National Democratic Assembly] are accused of being behind [demonstrations] more than anybody else. And we are not known to be an Islamic movement. Of course, the issues of al-Aqsa and Jerusalem were dominant. And that has a religious side, as well as a national side and an occupation side. The protest in the Arab world picked up on this religious side more than anything else. Though the motivation was national solidarity with Arabs, the symbols were religious. What they saw on TV moved them. There was no revival of Islamic solidarity in Turkey, or in Malaysia, [and only] a few demonstrations in Indonesia. The main protests were in the Arab world, and the motivations were national, but the symbols were religious. The Islamist movement was there with their flags to help these protests. That doesn’t mean that the people there were Islamists: millions of people demonstrated. But the only ones organized were the Islamists. There are no huge secular movements in the Arab world to capitalize on these protests — that’s the crisis of secular, democratic and socialist movements in the Arab world. Also, it’s so much easier for the media to present Arabs as irrational people who are struggling only for religious symbols. This fits the image of Arabs in the Western media. But we live the truth. We are people who are fed up with Oslo, with the settlements, with the occupation, with Camp David, with Clinton saying that the Palestinians bear the responsibility for the failure of Camp David. [The intifada] was a cry of protest against all this unfairness. The Palestinian negotiators used Jerusalem as a bunker, as a refuge, not to give more concessions. That doesn’t mean that Jerusalem was the only issue.
You are a prominent critic of the concept of civil society, as it is applied to Palestine in particular. How do you compare the first intifada to the second one in terms of the involvement of grassroots groups?
The first intifada was a much more spontaneous event during its first stages. It became organized through time. Most segments of society were involved in the first intifada. Because of the existence of the Palestinian Authority and because of the fact that its most dominant characteristic is these confrontations, not all segments of the society can participate in this intifada. In the first intifada Israel closed the West Bank and Gaza. Now every city, every village, is separated because of Areas A, B and C. The confrontations are not right in the villages, but outside, so not all of society is in the confrontation, just the young people who are brave enough to go down and face the soldiers. Then the soldiers react against the whole of the city and the village. The oppression in this intifada, compared with the first is — well, there’s no proportion whatsoever. The Israeli fire this time is intense and brutal.
Where do you think the struggle is going?
I don’t know. I can tell you where I hope it will go. I would like to see a long-term struggle that realizes that there is no just peace in the near future. But for that you must have determined leadership, consistent, not hasty, which does not waste the sacrifices of its people in a short time — which means a change in the mode of struggle. Such a struggle would leave the Palestinian question open for a long time — a struggle that people can live with in their daily life, a struggle with the economy, a struggle with the society. That’s what I would like to see. What I am afraid of is an intifada that stalls after only a move in the negotiations, not even a strategic move, but a modification of the Israeli proposals of Camp David.