Jul 24, 2007
Interview: For many years, Azmi Bishara has been one of the most prominent voices representing the 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel. But now he is a fugitive, facing some of the most serious allegations ever made against an Israeli MP. What happened? In a rare interview, he talks to Rory McCarthy.
When war broke out in Lebanon last summer there were few dissenting voices in Israel. Opinion polls showed unprecedented public support for the conflict. Politicians and pundits crowded television studios to argue that Israel was fighting for its survival in its battle to wipe out Hizbullah.
But one Israeli MP saw it differently. Hizbullah, he wrote, was a resistance movement, fighting a war brought on by an Israeli government led by "mediocrities, cowards and opportunists" who were responsible for "barbaric vandalism and the deliberate targeting of civilians".
After a decade as a member of parliament in the Knesset, Azmi Bishara, politician, author and academic, had long established a reputation as the most outspoken political figure to emerge from Israel's Arab minority. Soon after the war was over, Bishara and a handful of MPs from his Balad party travelled to Syria and Lebanon, both "enemy states", where he continued to denounce his government. He did not have to wait long for a reaction: in September the Israeli attorney general ordered police to begin a criminal investigation.
It wasn't the first inquiry into Bishara's activities, and so he was not surprised when six months later he was called in to Petah Tikva police station, near Tel Aviv, for questioning. He twice met two police officers and then left for what he insists was a prearranged speaking tour to Jordan.
It was only while he was away that investigators leaked details of the case to the Israeli press. Although Bishara has not been charged, it has now emerged that he is under investigation for money laundering, contact with a foreign agent, delivery of information to the enemy and, most seriously, assistance to the enemy during war - a charge that can carry the death penalty.
These are some of the most serious allegations ever leveled against an Israeli MP and effectively mean that Bishara must either remain in exile abroad, or return to face the prospect of a lengthy jail sentence, or worse. But Bishara is also the most prominent advocate of Arab political rights within Israel, and the investigation has exposed a widening rift in Israeli society between the Jewish majority and the 20% Palestinian minority.
Bishara has not returned home. In April he handed in his resignation from the Knesset at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. For now he is living with his wife and two young children in a friend's empty flat in an apartment block in Amman, Jordan.
"The symbolic action of bringing me to trial and condemning me - they want it. I know they want it," he says, in a rare interview with the Guardian. "I'm not going to let them succeed; I'm always two steps ahead." He sits back on the sofa, dressed in a polo shirt and chinos, with his mobile phones laid out on the coffee table. On a desk behind him is a laptop and on it the draft of a new book he is writing about democracy in the Arab world.
Bishara denies the accusations brought against him, and argues that the real reason for the investigation is not his actions during the Lebanon war but his long-held and widely published call for a fundamental change to the nature of the Israeli state: his belief that the country should no longer be a Jewish state but must protect Arab rights and become a "state for all its citizens".
"They want to condemn the whole political ideology and put it as if it's a cover for another kind of activity, which is not true," he says.
In March, the Israeli mass-market Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper published a story reporting that wire-tappings conducted by the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service, had recorded Bishara's conversations during the war. It said he spoke to "Hizbullah contacts" and directed them to "optimal targets for their rockets". It also reported that he had obtained "hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash" through money-changers in east Jerusalem, using such codewords as "book", which the newspaper said meant $50,000, "English", which it said meant dollars, and "Hebrew", which it said meant shekels.
"Investigators said they knew Bishara was using codewords because he suspected he was being wire-tapped; they said they burst into fits of laughter when Bishara placed an order for 'Half a book, in English,' meaning $25,000," the newspaper reported.
Bishara insists the allegations are untrue. He says he did not speak to anyone from Hizbullah during the war. "Is it true I have been on the phone? Yes, and people were listening. But was I speaking to Hizbullah? The answer is no." He did speak to politicians and journalists in Syria and Lebanon, but said he had no secret information to pass on. "We don't have that kind of information to pass to anybody," he says. "What could I say that's not in the media? It's unbelievable. It's not serious at all."
The allegations of money laundering, he says, are "nonsense", and when he used the word "book" in his phone conversations with a money-changer he says he was talking only about books they had lent each other. "It was about books, really about books. He kept taking books from me and giving me books. He's a real book collector. He reads. But that's all," he says. "It's a whole case of turning political, ideological, intellectual activity into a security suspicion."
Bishara is a Roman Catholic and a leftist, born into a lower-middle-class family in Nazareth. His father was a health inspector, trade unionist and one-time communist, his mother a teacher. During the 1948 war, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes, Bishara's family stayed on in the country that became Israel. Bishara studied at Haifa and Hebrew universities, and his Communist party connections offered him the chance to take a doctorate in philosophy at Humboldt University in East Berlin in the 1980s. Like most Arabs in Israel, he rejects establishment definitions and describes his nationality as simply Arab Palestinian.
Born in an Israeli city eight years after the creation of the state of Israel, he holds Israeli citizenship, which makes him part of the country's 20% Arab minority and entitles him to vote and to stand for election to parliament. He can trace his family back hundreds of years to a village north of Nazareth, in what is today northern Israel.
Before his resignation, his Balad party held only four seats in the Knesset in a country where many Arab Israelis still tend to vote for the mainstream political parties, particularly Labour - now part of the ruling coalition. Even Bishara admits there is not widespread public support for his ideas among his own community. One opinion poll earlier this year found that three-quarters of Arab Israelis would support a constitution describing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
However, in recent months, that has begun to change. For a start, racism against Arabs in Israel is rising, according to at least one recent poll. In a survey for the Centre Against Racism, a poll of Jewish Israelis found that more than half believed it was treason for a Jewish woman to marry an Arab man; 40% said Arabs should no longer have the right to vote in parliamentary elections; and 75% opposed apartment blocks being shared by Jews and Arabs.
At the same time, more and more prominent Arab Israelis are adopting ideas similar to Bishara's and proposing a fundamental challenge to the Jewish nature of the state. Four separate documents have emerged since December, each making a similar case. Adalah, a human rights group, issued a draft constitution that said Israel should be defined not as a Jewish state but as a "democratic, bilingual and multicultural state". It called for an end to the Law of Return, which gives automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, and it called on Israel to "recognise its responsibility for past injustices suffered by the Palestinian people".
Then, earlier this month, in a remarkable interview with the Ha'aretz newspaper, Avraham Burg, a Jewish former speaker of the Knesset and former chair of the Jewish Agency, delivered his own denunciation of Israel's structure. "It can't work any more," he said. "To define the state of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It's dynamite." Burg too called for a change to the Law of Return and was highly critical of what he called Israel's "confrontational Zionism".
For Bishara, such comments only reinforce his long-held opinions. "Everything is said as if there is an elephant in the room that nobody wants to speak about, which is called a state of all its citizens," he says. "But the idea won. This idea now is the real rival of the Zionist state. This is the first time you have a real challenge."
The Law of Return, he argues, is a fundamental problem, as is the idea of a state both Jewish and democratic. "The problem with this state is that it cannot grant equality. It cannot separate religion and state, and it will always have an ideological mission that will keep it from integrating in the region or serving its citizens." He describes Israel as a "colonial democracy".
"The basic relationship between a state and its citizens should be citizenship, not ethnic or religious affiliation," he says. "Who is a citi-zen of Israel? Is my cousin in Lebanon who left the country in 1948 allowed to come back or not? This is basic. But somebody who can prove that his mother is Jewish, from Brooklyn - he can come."
However, the reality is that there is little chance that any of these ideas will become law in the near future. Israel does not have a constitution and, though there are frequently talks about how a draft might look, there remain wide differences on other issues beyond Jewish-Arab relations, particularly the fraught question of the relationship between secular and religious Jews.
There has been a harsh reaction to this ideological challenge. Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet, was reported earlier this year as warning that a radicalization of Israel's Arab minority was a "strategic threat to the state's existence". In March, a rightwing MP introduced a bill in the Knesset that would in future require all MPs to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state and to its national anthem and flag.
"We have to do everything to keep Israel as a Jewish state," said Arnon Soffer, head of Geostrategy at Haifa University and a leading advocate of the argument that Arab Israelis and Palestinians constitute a "demographic threat" to the Jews. "It is clear for me that to be a minority in this region is the end of the Jewish people, of the Jewish dream, of the Jewish state," he said. "They use words like 'democracy', but if they are in power, it is the end of democracy. We have to stop being naive."
Bishara is dismissive of those who argue that Arabs already have sufficient rights within Israel - notably citizenship, the right to vote and the right to speak out. These are no more than concessions, he says. "You took the land and gave me freedom of speech," he says. "Who's winning here? Let's revise the deal. Take your freedom of speech and give me back Palestine. How about that?"
The longer the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues, he says, Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories will draw closer and the argument for a single, binational state will grow stronger, an argument that he openly favours.
"If it continues like this, in the end the issue of the Arabs in Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will meet," he says. "Binational means that the Arabs also should recognise that the Jews are a nationality. It doesn't mean the destruction of the state. It means two political entities will have to live together. It's a huge compromise."
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