An Arab Israeli pushes Israel's free-speech limit

At first Israeli Arab leader Azmi Bishara, sipping cappuccino and quoting John Stuart Mill, seems more like an ivory tower intellectual than a challenge to the powerful Israeli state.

But to many right-wing Israelis, Mr. Bishara is a danger to their country. Bishara, a political philosopher and member of parliament (the Knesset), was banned Tuesday from running for reelection upon the recommendation of Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who cited statements Bishara allegedly made in support of armed struggle against Israel.

For some, the banning of Bishara and another Arab Israeli lawmaker has intensified the question hovering over the country since 1948: Can Israel be both a democracy and a Jewish state?

Bishara, the only representative in the last Knesset of his Balad (Homeland) party, which was also banned, is certain the answer is no.

He says of his Jewish critics: "Their problem with me is that I do not agree to live like a guest and accept conditions for being a citizen. I do not derive my citizenship from the Zionist project and the Law of Return," a statute that gives automatic citizenship to Jewish immigrants.

"We are an indigenous people here," he adds, drawing a parallel between American Indians and Arab Israelis. "I do not think they are doing me any favor. I did not choose this relationship. I'm not a Mexican who immigrated to the US.. I'm the Indian, not the Mexican. You gave me citizenship instead of my homeland you took over. It had better be equal citizenship."

In pushing the legal attack against Bishara, Mr. Rubinstein stressed what he termed Bishara's "negating of Israel's character as a Jewish state." The attorney general says that behind closed doors, Bishara and his activists aim for the destruction of Israel and that his espousal of a "state of all its citizens" camouflages plans for eventually deporting Jews and thereby bringing about an Arab majority.

Bishara says Rubinstein is engaged in "lies, distortions, and misinterpretations as tools to achieve his real goal, removing the ideological issue I raise." The Supreme Court is due to make a final decision on Bishara's candidacy.

For Israeli Arabs and Jewish liberals, the banning of Bishara and of another Arab MK, Ahmed Tibi, has translated the campaign for the Jan. 28 elections into heightened alienation between the Jewish majority and Arab minority in Israel, the remnant of the Arab community that was mostly expelled or encouraged to leave, or that fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli fighting. Arab Israeli leaders are divided over whether Arabs should boycott the election if Bishara and Mr. Tibi are not reinstated.

Even right-wingers concede that Israeli Arabs, who number a fifth of the population, have faced severe discrimination in land use, building rights, social services, and education since then. Voting and running for the Knesset have been among the few spheres in which they enjoyed equality. But the experiences of Tibi and Bishara have jeopardized that equality, Arabs and liberal Jews say.

Bishara's most controversial public statement, which irked Israelis across the political spectrum, included praise for the Hizbullah militia's campaign against Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon. The statement came as he shared a podium in Syria with Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah and radical Palestinian leaders who deny Israel's right to exist. Likud legislator Yisrael Katz, who backed Rubinstein's stance, said Bishara's nullification would "enable democracy to defend itself."

Uproar over the statements in Syria led to Bishara's being stripped of his parliamentary immunity and placed on trial for encouraging violence against the state. The proceedings are still under way.

Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says Bishara's pronouncements have had an ominous ring for Israelis since they come within the context of the two-year-old intifada. Mr. Alpher says this has persuaded many Jews that Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories seek Israel's destruction.

"There is a sense among Israelis that is substantiated even among Palestinian opinion polls that this intifada is about destroying Israel, not just having a Palestinian state," he says.

Bishara says the "state of all its citizens" would gradually dismantle a system that favors Jews and sever the linkage between citizenship and ethnicity on the one hand, and citizenship benefits and performance of duties to the state, such as military service, on the other.

He says the flag, anthem, and other state symbols could continue unchanged since they derive from the "historical memory" of the Jewish majority. But he is adamant that during any peace negotiations, the Palestinians retain their "right of return" to former areas that became part of Israel, something Israelis view as a euphemism for bringing about a Palestinian majority. He says that the implementation should be done gradually through cooperation between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Bishara also advocates cultural autonomy and official recognition of Arabs as a minority, likening his model to Canada, albeit without territorial autonomy.

Under this transformation, a host of quasi-governmental institutions that operate on behalf of Jews would have to cease functioning. The basing of jobs and financial benefits on military service would be scrapped.

More crucial to Israel's self-definition, the Law of Return, which gives Jewish immigrants automatic citizenship, would be changed. Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says the law and the institutions stem from Israel's role as "a refuge for Jewish people who have systematically been the object of prejudice and even annihilation. One could say the Zionist movement established these institutions as an affirmative action program for Jewish refugees."

Gad Barzilai, a Tel Aviv University political scientist, says Bishara should be allowed to run even if many Israelis do not like to hear what he has to say. "It is a frightening scenario if one has to be a Zionist to participate in Israeli politics. The state is trying to prevent critical views being heard by minority members, and this is a very undemocratic move."

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