Friday, April 13, 2007

Israeli-Arab lawmaker disappears


Joshua Brilliant

UPI Israel Correspondent

April 13, 2007

TEL AVIV -- An Arab member of Israel's Knesset who is abroad while security authorities investigate his alleged offenses symbolizes the deep division and suspicions between the country's Jewish majority and Arab minority.

Azmi Bishara, 51, heads Balad - the National Democratic Assembly that has three seats in Israel's 120-member legislature. He spent the Easter holiday with his family in Amman, met Jordan's foreign minister - and disappeared.

Rumors abound: He requested asylum in Qatar, he decided to quit the Knesset (Parliament) and not return to Israel; he is going to Spain, France, Egypt, and India; or he is still in Jordan, keeping a low profile and not granting interviews. The chairman of Balad's Knesset faction, Jamal Zahalka, said in a telephone interview that he had not talked to Bishara in the past two days and did not know his whereabouts.
Bishara "will return shortly or not [so] shortly," said his aide, Badran Ezz Al Dinh.

According to daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Bishara said in Amman that if he would return to Israel he would be detained "immediately."

Government and Knesset spokesmen said that they did not know what Bishara is suspected of having done. Israeli media has been talking of "legal obstacles" to reporting the facts. The Palestinian Maan news agency, which is not subject to Israeli law, gave a reason for this approach: a gag order.

Two prominent politicians nevertheless hinted suspicions.

"Long ago he crossed the boundary lines" of what a Knesset member may do while fulfilling his duties, said education minister Yuli Tamir.

Bishara made several trips to Syria and Lebanon and met officials including Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Israeli law bans unauthorized trips to enemy states but Bishara said that he was fulfilling his duties as a member of the Knesset and therefore had full parliamentary immunity.

The Knesset then amended the law, also banning legislators' trips to enemy states - and Bishara went again.

Knesset Member Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad spy service, said that Bishara demonstrated "a pattern of behavior that might be worse than anything we've known."

Bishara's trips to enemy states would obviously arouse suspicions that he met foreign agents and passed information. That would certainly be a good reason to stay away.

Israeli security officials who have experience fighting hostile organizations are known to have examined their finances to try to plug their sources. Balad seemed to have a lot of money during the 2006 election campaign, and the state comptroller said in a report that its accounts presented to him "were not complete."

Zahalka denied "all the accusations" and accused the authorities of a "frame-up."

"They are trying to control the political activities of Palestinians in Israel and to oppress any national dimension of [our] politics," he charged.

Bishara has been "one of the most successful intellectual, charismatic politicians" that local Arabs have had, observed Adel Manaa, director of the Center for the Study of the Arab Society in Israel at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute.

Born in Nazareth in 1956, he received a Ph.D. in philosophy in Berlin, headed the philosophy department at Birzeit University in the West Bank, helped establishing Balad in 1995, and joined the Knesset the following year.

He is an Arab nationalist, an advocate of Pan-Arabism and as such kept hammering at the Jewish state. "Israel is the biggest robbery of the century ... Return Palestine to us and take your democracy with you. We, the Arabs, are not interested," he reportedly said.

To some Israelis he was a person who ruined efforts at a dialogue. His success was ominous.

Yoel Hasson, a former deputy head of the Shabak security service and now a member of the hawkish Israel Beitenu Knesset faction, noted that seven years ago Balad was just a group of some 200 intellectuals. However, in last year's Knesset elections Balad won 72,066 votes. Some Arabs boycotted the elections. According to As'ad Ghanem of Haifa University's School of Political Science, Arab participation in Israeli elections has been dropping at a faster rate than Jewish turnout, and the most common reason was "political protest against the situation of the Palestinians in Israel."

Documents that Arab intellectuals published in recent months have been demanding changes in Israel's character from being a Jewish state to a bi-national entity, "cultural autonomy," and giving the Arabs, who are almost 20 percent of the population, a right to veto laws.

A recent public-opinion poll by Haifa University's Dean of Social Sciences Professor Sammy Smooha showed that Jews and Arabs felt threatened.

The Arabs fear that the Jews would deny them civil rights, confiscate their lands, and transfer some of them to the Palestinian Authority. The Jews feared that the Arabs would outnumber them and join the violent struggle that the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have been waging.

The Shabak security service reportedly warned of a "rise of subversive elements," and according to Ma'ariv some Shabak officials described Israeli Arabs as "a real strategic threat." Smooha found that 48 percent of the Arabs justified Hezbollah bombings of Israel during the last war.

And thus Uri Dromi, of the Israel Democracy Institute, recalled having warned an Arab interlocutor that Bishara and the leader of the militant wing of the Israeli Islamic movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, would bring upon Israeli Arabs a second Nakba (catastrophe). The first one was in the 1948 war when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee.

"The majority is not going to commit suicide," Dromi said.

He criticized Bishara for going to Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War and expressing support for Hezbollah. "He sits in Syria and talks to the heads of the terrorist organizations. He is stretching freedom of expression with a chutzpah ... and a democracy has a right to defend itself," Dromi argued.

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