In April, Azmi Bishara, a contributing editor of this magazine and a member of the Israeli Knesset, left Israel and did not return as planned. Toward the end of the month, Israel’s General Security Services (Shabak) announced charges against Bishara of “aiding the enemy” during Israel’s summer 2006 war against Hizballah and Lebanon. Shortly afterward, Bishara submitted his resignation from the Knesset at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. He maintains his innocence. This commentary by Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, lecturer in Jewish history at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, Israel, first appeared at Mahsom.com, a Hebrew-language website run by Palestinians from Israel. Raz-Krakotzkin’s article was translated from Hebrew by Robert Blecher.
The accusations against Azmi Bishara, his resignation from the Knesset and his enforced departure from the country in order to escape imprisonment have provoked tremendous anxiety in Israel. The media hysteria reveals not only the fright that Bishara strikes into hearts, but also the great challenge posed by his exposure of Israel’s contradictions and limits. He arouses hatred precisely because he is right, especially regarding the issues over which he has been attacked, in the past and at present, when he is accused of no less than “supporting the enemy in times of war.”
The repeated distortion of his words demonstrates just how relevant and challenging they are. Since the 1990s, through his academic writings as well as his political activities, Bishara has subverted Israel’s self-image as a democracy, and at the same time proposed alternatives. Fear of him has recently grown, as it has become clear that he speaks not only for the constituents of his own party, but for the entire Arab public in Israel: Recent position papers and documents issued by Arab organizations, and demanding the democratization of Israel and equality for its Palestinian citizens, were obviously inspired by ideas and concepts developed by Azmi Bishara. These documents led the Shabak to define the entire Arab minority as a “strategic threat.” In this context, it comes as no surprise that the Shabak decided to isolate Bishara’s party, the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), believing that taking Bishara down would eliminate a key source of ferment.
Yet even if the Shabak succeeds in eliminating Bishara from the political field, it will not be able to eliminate his spirit and ideas, which are increasingly assuming a central role in building the consciousness of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Even Bishara’s opponents cannot deny his decisive contribution to this important process, to the creation of an infrastructure that will enable the Palestinian minority to cope with the open war that the state of Israel has recently declared on it. It is an illusion to think that eliminating Bishara from political life will kill the principles he has advanced, even if a regime of fear, in an early stage, silences those who promote them. Israeli society — drowning in deep crisis without a future, hope or dreams — has transferred the responsibility for its predicament to Bishara and the NDA. There has been no attempt to argue with the NDA, only a prolonged effort to delegitimize it. But in this dangerous moment, there is also hope that this dramatic crisis will bring Israeli society around to a different course, impelling it to deal with the challenge posed by the representatives of the Arab public writ large.
This is not the first time that Israeli authorities have investigated Bishara. All the previous investigations have concerned his open, public activities. The Shabak claims that the current investigation has nothing to do with his declared political positions: his condemnation of the Israeli war against Lebanon last summer, and his insistence upon viewing Hizballah’s response as resistance. This time, they argue that he is charged with active military support and for supplying with sensitive military information, for which he received a huge amount of money. Together with the media, the Shabak has organized an unprecedented campaign of incitement describing Bishara as the most dangerous type of traitor, an extreme nationalist who belongs to the “powers of evil.”
Many Israelis do not believe these accusations, and are sure the Shabak is trying to stitch together a case against him because of his political statements and visits to Damascus and Lebanon after the war.  More than 300 Israeli academics signed a petition entitled “We believe Azmi Bishara.” Although not all details have been published, it is clear that the accusations are false. The very idea that Bishara collected military secrets is absurd, and the fact that the authorities waited for eight months to expose the “crime” is even more suspicious. For most Israelis, who believe that Bishara should be sentenced anyway for the opinions he has expressed, questions of evidence are irrelevant, however. After continuous incitement, it is not surprising that ordinary people perceive him as a treacherous foe.
The fear of Azmi Bishara is a clear manifestation of the deep crisis in which Israel has found itself after the war. Israel is casting about for a reason to explain its defeat, and instead of dealing with the real factor — its long-standing policies — it is going after an Arab intellectual who identified with “the enemy.” The only way for Israel to seriously respond to the crisis it brought upon itself is to address the challenge presented by Bishara in his numerous writings in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
The antagonism from the right is no surprise, of course. Members of Knesset such as Effi Eitam, Zevulun Orlev and their fellow traffickers in a racist interpretation of Judaism believe that Arabs belong neither in the Knesset nor anywhere else in Israel. But it is worth remembering that incitement against Bishara originated not with the radical right, but rather in circles considered liberal and part of “the peace camp.” For years, these circles have presented Bishara as a radical nationalist. The incitement began following the election of Ehud Barak in 1999, when it became clear that, contrary to expectations, Bishara and his colleagues would not automatically support the policy dictated by parties that defined themselves as the “left,” that is to say, Labor and Meretz. So long as Bishara presented his ideas in his capacity as an intellectual, they seemed acceptable and even admirable; in the 1990s, he was even seen as one of Israel’s most prominent thinkers. Transferring his ideas into the political arena, however, brought home what the realization of democratic principles would mean,and this, the Jewish public refused. The Israeli left could not forgive Bishara for laying bare the nationalism and chauvinism that constitute the base of its approach. He himself contributed through his arrogance, a trait forbidden for Arabs.
Representatives of the “peace camp” lose their equanimity every time that the NDA (and others) refuse to accept their political dictates. Ha’aretz, for instance, turned the condemnation of Bishara and his party into a declared, systematic policy even as it published a few of his pieces. The newspaper repeatedly painted the line between Hadash [the Communist Party and allies] and the NDA, especially in one editorial, as the line between the legitimate and the illegitimate. Hadash was presented as espousing a stance of civic values and coexistence, as opposed to that of the nationalist and divisive NDA. In this respect, the position of Ha’aretz accords completely with that the Shabak, even if there may be differences between them regarding their ultimate conclusions. While the Shabak suggests rendering NDA positions illegal, Ha’aretz adopts a position of tolerance as a testimony to the special, democratic features of the State of Israel. Distinguishing between those defined as “nationalist” and those said to adhere to a “civic stance” conditions the participation of Arabs in Israeli society on relinquishing their identity and national identification as Palestinians and Arabs. While the consensual definition of the state as the “state of the Jewish People” distances them from equal participation in any dimension of public life, and preserves their marginalization and continuous discrimination against them, they are also not entitled to identify as Arab or Palestinian.
Drawing a sharp distinction between Hadash and the NDA is, of course, specious. And the positions taken by Hadash are different. The issue, rather, is that it is convenient for liberal Israelis to accept this superficial distinction. The NDA is not separatist, but rather poses a challenge to the communist perception of integration, that denies any significance to national identities. The NDA has mounted a struggle for equality based not on negating national identity, but rather on protecting and nurturing it. As the party’s election slogan puts it, “Full identity, full citizenship.” Moreover, the present hysteria developed after many Israeli Jews realized that the line between Hadash and the NDA is not as clearly marked as many had thought, and that the NDA’s basic positions had become widely accepted even among Hadash supporters. There remain fundamental differences and arguments among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, of course, but today there is also wide agreement, against which the Shabak has come out with the support, be it active or passive, of the so-called liberals. In this context of emerging consensus among Palestinian citizens, the NDA is seen as even more dangerous, as “riling up” the Arabs by sowing the seeds of democracy among the young. If the bad child is eliminated, goes the immature thinking of the Shabak, the rest of the young ‘uns will learn their lesson and sit quietly. They might not sing Hatikvah, but they will reconcile themselves to the Zionist project. Legitimate Arabs, in this view, are those who accept the status quo with minor adjustments and will acquiesce to the policy of the Zionist left.
For more than two decades, Azmi Bishara has challenged Jewish Israeli society. He has played a central role in demanding that Israel be recognized as a state of all its citizens. They were others who assumed this principled stance, but Bishara had a decisive role in transforming this basic principle into a meaningful part of the public agenda and basis for discussion that involved greater and greater numbers. Beyond constituting a clear plan, the demand is itself a critical intervention that points up the anti-democratic and racist foundations of the current reality. It expresses an aspiration for the democratization of the state and elimination of the institutions and apparatuses that perpetuate discrimination and the dispossession of Israel’s Arab citizens. The demand for democratization brought home the implications of the state’s current definition.
Many Israelis could live with the slogan, “a state of all its citizens,” and consider it legitimate, though they did not seriously discuss its implication — namely the dismantlement of all the institutions, mechanisms and laws that distinguish Jewish from Arab citizens and protect Jewish superiority and Arab dispossession. The complementary demand, to recognize Palestinian citizens as a national minority, aroused multifaceted opposition. The NDA’s insistence that equality be based on the preservation of national consciousness, its recognition that only national organization enables struggle, and its opposition to the models of integration based on the “negation of identity” — all these aroused opposition among “leftist” circles. This opposition materialized despite the fact that — and indeed perhaps because — these demands clearly involved the recognition of the Jewish-Israeli nation’s right to self-determination. This recognition signaled a change in the rules of the game and a new kind of challenge posed by Israel’s Palestinian citizens: Jews were no longer granting rights to the Arab minority while vaunting their own open-mindedness, but rather Palestinians were recognizing the national and civic rights of Jews within the framework of democracy, equality and justice.
Inciting Instead of Engaging
Opposition to the NDA in general, and Bishara in particular, developed against the backdrop of the political positions and activities that he and his associates undertook since the end of 1990s and especially since 2000. The NDA, of course, was not the only party to face continuous incitement; other Arab MKs also faced investigation and vulgar aggression from broadcasters and journalists. The emphasis, however, was always on Bishara since it was impossible to deny the fundamental challenge that he presented. The fury his positions provoked was multiplied by the fact that he articulated them in Arab contexts, refused to present the Arab world as an enemy and insisted that the citizenship of a Palestinian in Israel ought not to be conditioned on negating his or her identity as an Arab with ties to the Arab world. These elements of his politics, which were received with great difficulty even among Israelis who do not think of themselves as racists, constituted the biggest challenge. Bishara said the same things in Hebrew as he said in Arabic, but unlike the speeches he gave in the Arab world, the words he spoke in Israel were ignored. Bishara does not speak like the Jews want him to: He speaks like an Arab and refuses the claim that his Israeli citizenship negates his right to speak like an Arab. In the past, his success stemmed from the fact that he spoke in parallel to both sides, but more recently he has been prevented from meaningful engagement with the Israeli public, since every journalist who interviews him sounds like a Shabak agent.
The hatred toward Bishara has grown precisely because his political approach has been proven correct. Consistent in his opposition to the “peace process” in its current configuration, he has cast doubt on the fundamental tenets of the “peace camp.” His reservations have been proven correct and pragmatic, and despite the fact that Israeli society has progressively marginalized him since 2000, he has continued to arouse interest. Incitement against him has become a basic ingredient of Israeliness, especially among those on the “left” who claim that he has “gone too far” and “crossed the line,” thereby delineating the boundaries of the permissible.
Bishara was right when he was the only member of Knesset, apart from those on the right, who refused to support Ehud Barak’s plan for the Camp David summit in 2000. Issuing a Knesset speech that warned about the consequences of Barak’s arrogant and rejectionist policy, Bishara stood alone among the Arab members of Knesset, the rest of whom joined the Zionist left. Today there is no longer any need to detail the consequences of Barak’s adventurist policies and Labor’s failure to mount any opposition from the left. Bishara’s stance demonstrated that the NDA would not automatically support the Israeli left regardless of the policies it advanced. The NDA again displayed its independence when its leadership boycotted the 2001 elections that pitted Barak against Sharon.
Bishara was right when, on the occasion of a speech memorializing the late Syrian president in 2001, he declared that Palestinian resistance to occupation could not succeed in the absence of a comprehensive Arab political strategy. Still today, various Israeli commentators continue to distort the words he spoke there by broadcasting only selections of the speech. They emphasize his use of the word “resistance” — and, indeed, he did not deny the right of Palestinian in the territories to resist the occupation — but they do so in total disregard for the context, which insisted that resistance must be set within a comprehensive political initiative. Anyone who is not in the thrall of [“Arabist” TV commentators] Ehud Yaari, Tzvi Yechezkiel and their like will recognize today the historic importance of Bishara’s speech, which pointed out a deficiency that was later rectified by the Arab peace initiative.
Despite the attention the media has called to his use of the term “resistance,” and indeed his position that Palestinians have the right to resist oppressive occupation, it has taken pains to obscure his words against suicide bombing. A short report by Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass about Bishara’s comments on suicide bombing at a meeting in Ramallah disappeared without a trace from the Internet and has not been immortalized in the printed issue. When speaking in such tones, Bishara was not so interesting, maybe since his detractors feared that his monstrous image would crack, or perhaps because they had no interest in investigating precisely which kinds of resistance to opposition are legitimate.
Bishara was certainly right in 2000 when he opposed the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in the absence of an accord with Syria. He supported the Syrian position, despite the criticism he absorbed from many quarters. The NDA indeed noted (and celebrated) the Israeli withdrawal with satisfaction, as a precedent for the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While many in Israel shared Bishara’s attitude, they were bothered by the fact that Arab interests played a significant role in his calculations. It was part of his consistent argument that the end of occupation and the establishment of justice — and also recognition of an Israeli entity — can be achieved only within a framework of a comprehensive policy of the Arab world.
The NDA’s opposition to the latest war in Lebanon was of course completely correct; Bishara’s party was not alone in its stance. What singled out Bishara in this case was that he refused to condemn Hizballah and pointed to the overall context that produced the crisis: Israel’s continual violations and aggressive activities and the war’s place within the framework of an American-Israeli plan. Bishara never hesitated to see Hizballah as a resistance organization and not a monster — even if, as is well known, he has reservations about some of its positions. Bishara powerfully opposes the very distinction between “extremist” and “moderate,” warning against those considered as “moderate,” whose policy brings catastrophe and disorder.
Bishara was clearly right when he asserted, at the beginning of the war, that Hizballah would not be defeated. This provoked the rancor of Israeli commentators, who were still salivating over the possibilities that the air attack would liquidate, destroy and smash “the brutal enemy.” This transgression was indeed hard for Israelis to forgive…. The war that Israel undertook in the hope of purifying itself, a war that was presented as supremely justified, a war that was supposed to erase the daily horrors resulting from the occupation and the unilateral approach for dealing with it, wound up being a bitter disappointment.
Various investigative committees are looking for the reasons the war failed, but they are refraining from interrogating the idea that this was a “just war” against a monstrous enemy, that it was a war that attempted to free Israeli hostages. Not a single Israeli official has asked if there was any justification for the tremendous losses among the Lebanese civilian population during this period. Israelis are not turning the critical lens on themselves, but rather looking for someone to blame. The war severely undermined Israeli security, pointed up the limits of military superiority, and provoked a general crisis for a society without direction, without security, and without vision. The more clearly the war’s failures were revealed, the more the incitement increased.
In Israel today, the Shabak has been declared the authority over matters that concern democracy. Its declaration that Arab citizens constitute a “strategic enemy” did not elicit a response. Even representatives of the “left” like Yuli Tamir and Ran Cohen adopt completely the Shabak line. The campaign against Bishara not only targets him and the NDA, but also aims to set limits for the entire Arab public. Whoever claims that in this case Bishara “crossed the line” is in fact drawing a line, one which is growing more and more restrictive if not completely suffocating. Even those who criticize one or another of Bishara’s positions need to understand the nature of the danger that we confront today. Indeed, this investigation is happening precisely because the security forces have come to understand that the differences between the NDA and other Arab parties are shrinking. Even by the Shabak’s standards, this is a hysterical response, liable to cause enormous damage and lead to a regime of repression and fear. This, indeed, is the goal.
In this context, the choice that faces us, Israeli Jews, is between agreeing to the current state of Shabak control and opening a comprehensive dialogue about the expansive challenge mounted by Bishara and the many others who helped craft the documents [addressing the position of Palestinian citizens in the Israeli polity]. It is completely possible to understand why these documents provoked opposition among many Israelis; there is a need for a far-reaching discussion about the implications. This discussion must replace the current campaign of intimidation.
Azmi Bishara’s attitude contains the only option for a recognition of Israel. It is within Bishara’s national attitude that a genuine recognition of Israel, albeit not in its present structure, could be realized, based on recognition in Palestinian rights. Yet, paradoxically, this attitude is now classified as extreme and illegitimate. This is exactly why I find it extremely important to fight against this episode of oppression.