By Neve Gordon, who teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel © The Nation (THE GUARDIAN, 20/04/07):
Rumours about Dr Azmi Bishara, the best-known Arab member of Israel's Knesset (parliament), began circulating on the internet early this month: Bishara is afraid to return to Israel; he intends to resign from the Knesset; the Israeli security agency is going to accuse him of treason and espionage. A gagging order preventing publication of any information about his actions made the rumours all the more intriguing.Bishara, a Christian Palestinian citizen of Israel, established the National Democratic Assembly (Balad) in 1995, and became a Knesset member in 1996. Since then he has been interrogated several times by the security agency and has been charged - and cleared - twice: in connection with helping Israeli Arabs visit family members in Syria; and for speeches praising Hizbullah's resistance in southern Lebanon and Palestinian opposition in the occupied territories. For many Israelis, his visit to Beirut last year and his claim that Israel was committing war crimes in Lebanon and carrying out genocide against Shia Muslims constituted using his parliamentary immunity to harm Israel. Many Jewish members of the Knesset have argued for years that Bishara is a fifth columnist and that Israeli democracy has a right to defend itself against the threat he poses.
But he is highly unlikely to be a spy, and expressing his opposition to Israeli and American policies and his admiration for Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's militancy and strategic intelligence does not jeopardise Israel's existence.
In the past few months, Palestinian intellectuals and activists, all of whom are Israeli citizens, have drafted four documents about the state's future. The underlying assumption is that, as long as Israel is defined as a Jewish state, its laws will always fall short of basic democratic principles and the right of all its citizens to full equality.
One document, the "democratic constitution", says Arab citizens should be considered a "homeland minority" with national rights. The idea is to transform Israel into a bilingual and multicultural democracy for all its citizens. Citizenship would no longer be granted automatically to any Jew, but to anyone born within Israel's territory or whose parent or spouse was a citizen, and to anyone persecuted for their political beliefs.
Not long after the document's publication, Israel's second-largest newspaper, Ma'ariv, reported a meeting at which the head of the security agency, Yuval Diskin, warned the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, that the radicalisation of Israel's Arab citizens constituted a "strategic threat to the state's existence". Diskin said: "The proliferation of the visionary documents ... is particularly worrisome, [since] the documents are united by their conception of Israel as a state for all its citizens and not a Jewish state." He concluded: "The separatist and subversive patterns represented by the elites might engender a new direction and mobilise the masses."
Balad protested, arguing that legitimate political activity whose aim is to change the state's character should not be considered subversive or dangerous. According to the newspaper Ha'aretz, the security agency replied that it "would foil the activity of anyone seeking to harm Israel's Jewish or democratic character, even if that activity was carried out by legal means".
Diskin admits not only that anyone striving to alter the character of the state will be treated as an enemy, but that the secret service has no respect for democratic practices and procedures. One should understand the recent accusations against Bishara in this context. More than anything else, he constitutes a symbolic threat, since he personifies the demand to transform Israel from a Jewish democracy into a democracy for all its citizens.