This is one of the stranger posts I’ll have written here about Israeli politics. Usually I have a hard source from either Haaretz or Ynetnews or the New York Times upon which I can base my analysis and commentary. But tonight I have several piecemeal sources none of which tell a complete story.
There is the case of Israel’s leading Arab politician, Azmi Bishara, who has mysteriously left the country for reasons that are unclear with the Israeli chattering classes expecting his resignation from the Knesset. He has not yet resigned and if he does no one is clear about why he would do so. Even stranger, Ynetnews quotes his party, Balad, complaining that an Israeli court has issued a gag order preventing it from discussing the matter:
Harmed by rumors surrounding the disappearance of Balad Chairman Azmi Bishara, faction chairman MK Jamal Zahalka said the party would turn to the High Court of Justice if the gag order on the affair was not lifted.
After leaving country for Jordan, MK’s wife and son return without the Balad party head; reports say Bishara left for Europe after Jordanian foreign minister asked him to respect Hashemite Kingdom’s sovereignty
This would seem to indicate that Bishara may’ve asked Jordan for political asylum and been rebuffed by a kingdom which did not want to rile relations with Israel. No doubt the Shin Bet has also weighed in telling the king it would regard such a gesture as hostile.
Balad comments further on the gag order:
“We find ourselves at a dead end since we cannot talk…We have nothing to hide, on the contrary, we have someone to blame. If the court does not order the gag order to be removed on Sunday, we will go to the High Court of Justice,” Zahalka told Ynet on Thursday.
“We will go all the way to the High Court to realize our right to respond to the fabricated accusations against us, and refute the malicious rumors that are being published through the media,” added Zahalka.
“Bishara is being persecuted because of his political and ideological views, and because of his national and democratic opinions. Former minister Shulamit Aloni has already told the media recently that she thought Shin Bet would try to set him up and this is what we think has happened. We wish to remove the uncertainty, we have a lot to say, if we were only allowed,” he said.
…Either way, Balad is serious about the PR attack it plans to launch once the gag order is removed.
What in the world is going on? After forwarding the Ynetnews link to my good friend and fellow Israeli peace activist, Sol Salbe, we have together come to the conclusion that the Bishara case is part of the Shin Bet’s avowed war against the Israeli Arab leadership, which recently announced a campaign to transform Israel from a Jewish state into a multiethnic democracy:
An attack on the Arab leadership, Zuabi maintains, is a natural response to this defeat. The second cause that she sees is “the vision papers” published in recent months by several Arab organizations, documents that spoke, among other things, about altering the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. “This is a political culture that Balad introduced, and now it’s become dominant in Arab society,” says Zuabi. She believes this is why someone in power decided to get rid of Balad, because “only it is capable of nurturing the idea of rejecting the Jewish state.”
The Shin Bet apparently took these papers quite seriously. About a month ago, the Israeli daily Maariv reported that Shin Bet chief Avi Diskin told the cabinet that these “vision papers” indicate that Israeli Arabs are a “strategic danger.” It’s unclear if he was referring to Bishara specifically but to the vast majority of Israeli Jews Bishara is undeniably the symbol of the threat to the state’s Jewish character. This week, Education Minister Yuli Tamir said that “Bishara has crossed the red line,” and Meretz Chairman MK Yossi Beilin made similar comments.
At the time I first read in Haaretz about the Shin Bet’s brazen declaration of war against Israeli Arabs it was a theoretical matter and I wasn’t clear how the spooks would fight it. The persecution of Bishara seems to be the first major battle in this war.
Sol believes that the Shin Bet has told Bishara that if he does not go into exile that it will arrest him on a security charge. Neither of us knows precisely what Bishara may be charged with. But Bishara visited Syria and Lebanon immediately after last summer’s war and made statements the Israeli government considered objectionable:
[In Syria,] Bishara…warned of the possibility that “Israel launch a preliminary offensive in more than one place, in a bid to overcome the internal crisis in the country and in an attempt to restore its deterrence capability.” …[In] Lebanon, [he] told the Lebanese prime minister that Hizbullah’s resistance to Israel has “lifted the spirit of the Arab people”. Soon thereafter at Interior Minister Roni “Bar-On’s request, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz ordered a criminal investigation be opened against Bashara…” [A]fter Bashara’s last trip in 2001, the Knesset passed a law forbidding MKs from visiting any enemy state.”
There are some other disturbing precedents in Israeli history. In the 1960s, the Shin Bet also waged a war of persecution against Israeli Arab political leaders of the Al Ard movement. The latter was an Arab nationalist movement founded by rebellious young Israeli Arab intellectuals devoted to the teachings of Gamel Nasser. The movement rejected the traditional Arab politics of the Communist party in favor of a more authentically nationalist politics. Israeli intelligence saw Al-Ard as a serious threat and when it put forward a list for the 1965 Knesset, the party was banned. Several members including Mahmoud Darwish, one of the greatest contemporary Arab poets, went into exile.
Sol sees the Bishara case in much the same light. The Shin Bet is threatening either to ban Balad or prosecute Bishara for national security breaches or both. They have directed him to leave the country voluntarily and resign from the Knesset. If most or all of what Sol and I surmise this would mean the most egregious governmental assault on Israeli Arab political life in a generation.
I should make clear that Sol and I are speculating based on putting two and two together from various reports we have read from the Israeli Hebrew and English language press. Unfortunately, we can do no more than speculate because it appears that the news media is either being prevented from reporting this story fully or Balad is prevented from responding fully to whatever charges are being levelled against it.
I recently read an article in Haaretz saying that Israeli Arab political leaders planned a full-scale public relations campaign against the Shin Bet’s assault. I thought it was a strange pronouncement since the public didn’t know then precisely what the Shin Bet planned. But apparently Balad even then had a pretty fair idea of what was in store. And their response was dead on. Whatever shenanigans are going on here must see the clear light of day. As we here in this country know in light of revelations of Bush Administration violations of human rights using the cover of secrecy, tyranny loves darkness. The Shin Bet must be made to answer for its actions. It must not be allowed to hound Azmi Bishara into silence or exile without a fair hearing. If Israel is a true democracy and not a security state masquerading as a democracy, it is the least we can expect.
Israeli Arabs have every right as citizens of the state to agitate for their rights. They have every right to do precisely what Martin Luther King did here in the 1960s–to transform America from a land of the free only for some of its citizens into a land of the free for all its citizens. If Israeli Arabs seek to change the nature of Israel they will not destroy the state. They will never be able to transform Israel without the consent of Jewish citizens. But they have every right to lobby for their vision of what Israel should be. Just as Jews have every right to counter with their own vision. That is what a democracy is. What a democracy is NOT–is one in which the majority cows the minority into submission through hounding, persecution and prison.
UPDATE: An Italian left publication, Il Manifesto, adds some interestesting speculation to the mix on April 8th:
According to rumours, the security services are expected to have records of phone talks between Bishara and some leading members from Hezbollah, among which is General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah himself, which came about during the days of the devastating Israeli offensive in southern Lebanon and the katyushia rockets being launched against Galilee.
Fundamentally, Bishara would seem to be accused of keeping contacts with the enemy during wartime. Yet, it looks quite improbable that Nasrallah, Israeli air force’s target, hidden in a secret place under very strict security measures, might have phoned during the war (phone lines, not least the mobile phone ones, are a formidable means in the secret services’ hands to find people) in order to engage himself in conversations with Bishara who is, in turn, kept under constant surveillance.