An Israeli Arab's troubles mirror woes of dual identity

Politician Azmi Bishara, an increasingly vocal critic of Israel, has quit the Knesset amid reports he is under criminal investigation.

This time of year is often touching – and touchy. This week, Israelis celebrated their Independence Day, marking 59 years since the Jewish state's founding in 1948. Palestinians will mark the same event as el-Nakba, the Catastrophe.

But this year, perhaps more than usual, eyes are turned to the people who are wedged in between: Arabs who make up about one-fifth of the Israeli population, and who increasingly consider themselves Palestinian.

At this moment, when narratives and nationalities collide, there is perhaps no one who symbolizes the inherent complications of being both Israeli and Palestinian more than Azmi Bishara.

Mr. Bishara, an Arab politician from Nazareth who's long been a vocal force in Israeli politics, announced in Cairo at the start of the week that he was quitting the Knesset, Israel's parliament. His decision to leave follows weeks of reports that Bishara, traveling in neighboring Arab countries, would be arrested and prosecuted upon his return to Israel.

While unnamed Israeli officials told major media outlets here Wednesday that Bishara would be charged with "aiding the enemy" in wartime, precise charges remain something of a mystery as they've been the subject of a gag order by state security officials. An Israeli court ordered a partial lift on the ban last week, allowing the police to announce that their international crimes unit is investigating Bishara.

But the reasons some Israelis think Bishara has "crossed the line," Bishara's colleagues and critics say, are far less foggy. He's regularly made trips to Lebanon and Syria and declared himself allied with positions held by officials and political groups in those countries.

In last summer's war, which started as a battle against Hizbullah and mushroomed into an offensive against much of south Lebanon, Bishara placed the blame entirely on Israel. Moreover, he has become a kind of spokesman of a growing movement of Israeli Arabs demanding autonomy inside Israel and an end to Israel's definition as a Jewish state.

In the heyday of peacemaking a decade or more ago, Bishara's trips to Syria allowed him to fashion himself as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. Today, however, such travel is illegal, and right-wing politicians have been lobbying to have Bishara charged with improper relations with an enemy state.

"Israeli law puts all kinds of limits on us, but a Palestinian does not think of Syria as an enemy country," says Said Zeedani, a philosophy professor at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and an old acquaintance and colleague of Bishara's.

Beyond Bishara's travels, he has spearheaded a movement among Israeli Arabs demanding that Israel declare itself a "state of all its citizens." Following a controversial new position paper issued earlier this year by leading Israeli Arab intellectuals called the "Future Vision" document, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin was quoted as warning the prime minister's office that Israeli Arabs were fast becoming a "strategic threat." Even progressive think tanks seem worried.

"A 'state of its citizens' means that it should cease to be a Jewish state, but to Israeli Jews, this is the reason for being for the state, and you're challenging the very foundations of it. But if Israel really wants to treat its citizens equally, it must lose its Jewish character," says Dr. Zeedani.

Theories over what Bishara will be charged with if and when he returns abroad abound. Bishara has indicated in interviews with Al Jazeera satellite channel that he might not return, telling reporters in Cairo that coming back now would force him to face a "right-wing, fascist, racist orchestra."

Observers here say that Bishara will be charged based on his recent trips to Syria and Lebanon – including meetings with Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed militant group and political party.

Bishara's colleagues say the Israeli establishment decided that Bishara had gone "too far" when, during the war last summer, he sided with Lebanon. Bishara's confidantes also say they expect he'll be charged with being involved in financial dealings with groups such as Hizbullah – in violation of an Israeli antiterrorism law – and with illegally bringing money into Israel.

Bishara is hardly a poster child of Islamic fundamentalism. He's a secular Christian who obtained a doctorate in philosophy from East Germany and, until founding the Balad Party, was a key figure in the Hadash: a communist, non-Zionist party of both Jews and Arabs.

Mahmoud Muhareb, a Balad Party member and a political scientist at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, says the complications are broader than the case against Bishara. The very landscape of Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel is shifting.

Part of this focuses on the changing identity of Israeli Arabs, as expressed in the "Future Vision" document, and the Israeli discomfort with it. "I think the Israeli establishment and the Shin Bet want to change the rules of the game, because they realize that the Arabs in Israel are not as silent as they were in the 70s, 80s, and 90s," says Dr. Muhareb.

In years past, issues and struggles of Israeli Arabs focused more on equality and equity – trying to close the funding gap between how much Arab schools and municipalities got compared to Jewish ones. Issues of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza seemed altogether different.

Now, however, interests of the two seem to converge more often, with Bishara representative of that blurring of agendas.

That Arabs inside Israel might eventually demand autonomy – and perhaps some kind of unification with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – has been a paramount concern among Israeli strategists for years. Population experts and birthrate specialists here regularly worry aloud that the Israeli Jewish population will gradually lose its demographic edge. Furthermore, the concept of autonomy for Arabs inside Israel raises suspicions that the Arab population in key areas of the country would eventually ask to be annexed to a Palestinian state.

"The Bishara case summarizes the huge rift between the Israeli vision of the reality of Israel and its ambition to become a Jewish state in shape and content ... between its vision of solving the Arab-Israeli conflict and between the demands of the Arab minority's demand to national, social and political rights," Mamoun al-Husseini, a political analyst wrote in the al-Quds Newspaper.

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