The kabuki-like story of Israeli Arab politician, Azmi Bishara, continues today as information continues to leak out in dribs and drabs despite a severe Israeli gag order against reporting the national security case against him. The background is that the Shin Bet for the past month has been building a secret dossier against Bishara based on two main charges. According to the independent Palestinian news agency Maan, he is charged with accepting $5-million passed to his through two East Jerusalem moneychangers. The second charge is that he communicated with Hezbollah representatives during the Lebanon war. Maan bases its story on an Israeli source though it is not clear whether it is a journalist or someone from Bishara’s party, Balad.
I spoke yesterday with a well-informed Mideast source who provided me further information on the story. Bishara’s phone has been tapped by the Shin Bet. There is only one way for the Shin Bet to eavesdrop on a Knesset member–that is by getting approval of the Supreme Court. This indicates that the charges against him are serious and perhaps credible since they have been vetted by Israel’s highest court. Though how credible these charges are is again anyone’s guess. Gideon Sapira of the Israeli online site, Left Bank (Hebrew), reveals that the bugging began a full year ago.
The source says that Bishara is charged with speaking with Lebanese journalists in Cairo and Amman who were affiliated with Hezbollah. This charge would seem to be the weaker one of the two. Unless Bishara revealed state secrets (and its hard to imagine what secrets he would know that could damage the State) and the Shin Bet has the goods to prove it, this is a hard charge to make stick. Regarding the $5-million, the source says the charge is likely that he used it for personal purposes rather than for political activity. Which means that the Shin Bet is building a case of corruption and if the charges prove true it would likely break Bishara as a credible representative for the Israeli Arabs. Though one has to keep in mind that many Israeli politicians have been accused of similar cases of corruption and their careers have not even been tarnished, let alone ended (Olmert and Sharon and but two examples that come to mind).
The Palestine Chronicle also notes that in 2005 the Knesset stripped Bishara’s parliamentary immunity in order to indict him for similar “offenses” to those charged now:
The Israeli parliament (Knesset)…voted in favor of stripping Bishara because of “his anti-Israeli remarks” and his organizing trips to Syria—considered [an] “enemy state” by Israel.
…This was the first time the Israeli Knesset [took] such a decision since its inception. Never had a Jewish Parliamentarian been stripped of her/his immunity for making political statements…
The comments that infuriated the Israeli establishment then were his [denunciation] of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s…policies in Palestine and Lebanon and his suggestion that resistance is a legitimate response to Israeli occupation. The Israeli officials interpreted this as “incitement to violence” and “expressing support for terrorism.” The second accusation referred to the trips he had organized for 800 Israeli Palestinians to be reunited with relatives in Syria they had not seen since 1948.
This decision, the lifting of his parliamentary immunity, was taken in order to enable the Israeli Attorney General to indict Bishara.
Does one begin to see a pattern of ongoing harassment in the current prosecution as well?? One way to find out would be to make the case public instead of hiding behind gag orders and secrecy.
Bishara has some momentous decisions to make just as the al-Ard party members, including famed poet Mahmoud Darwish, faced in the 1960s: whether to stay and fight and possibly go to prison for their ideals; or to leave the country and carry the fight from exile. My source believes that were the corruption charges unfounded that Bishara would be in Israel fighting them. However, again we must say that the motivations of all the parties are behind a veil that is impossible currently to penetrate.
Both sides in the case are playing a cat and mouse game with each other. Bishara refuses to return to Israel until the Shin Bet shows its hand and reveals what he is charged with. The Shin Bet waits to see if Bishara returns so it can arrest him. It also hopes Bishara will be so pissed off at its treatment that he will respond to the charges substantively, which in turn could be used against him in a future prosectuion. The Palestinian legislator has to decide whether to fight. He has to decide whether to resign his seat and remove his parliamentary immunity, thus making it easier for Shin Bet to prosecute him. The Shin Bet has to decide whether to make its case in the public sphere or behind closed doors as it has chosen to do so far. It has to decide whether its interests in prosecuting the case would be furthered by secrecy or openness (though we all know what their choice has been so far). If Bishara does return, the Shin Bet must mount a campaign within the Knesset to strip Bishara of his immunity. Will this combined with the resulting court case, turn Bishara into a martyr for the cause and thereby diminish any benefit (in their eyes) of prosecuting him.
This gag order, as I’ve written, is an assault, whether Israelis realize this or not, on Israeli democracy. Just because the Shin Bet sees Bishara as a threat doesn’t mean that the normal rules of judicial or political discourse go out the window. I am also concerned that there is a pattern of harassment and criminalization of all Israeli Arab politicians. By now, it is common practice for the Shin Bet to investigate alleged crimes by almost every sitting Israeli Arab Knesset member. Since when should it be a crime merely to BE an Israeli Arab and sit in the Knesset??
Beyond the question of whether the evidence in this case is solid and credible (and it very well may be), one has to wonder at the political motivations of the various players. Bishara himself says that the prosecution stems from an Israeli grudge against him for Israel’s loss in the Lebanon war. Israel’s bloody nose has motivated the intelligence agencies to puruse those like him who provided support for the country’s enemies like Hezbollah. I’ve already spoken here about the Shin Bet’s avowed declaration of war against the Israeli Arab nationalist parties for their campaign to change the nature of the State from being Jewish-dominated. This charge would seem part and parcel of that effort.
One also has to wonder at Ehud Olmert’s motivations as well. One of the weakest sitting prime ministers perhaps in the history of the State with subzero approval ratings (23% in the latest poll with only 2% saying they “trust him”). It would be a big sop to the far right parties for Olmert to get tough on an Arab they all love to hate: Bishara. At this point, Olmert has to be looking for things, anything, to help bolster his abysmal ratings and this could help a bit (at least in his mind).
Israeli journalists and Bishara himself have been crippled from reporting the substance of this case. And it is a shande that this is so. The first Western media story on it ran only yesterday, while the case has been building for a full month.
For more of my reporting on the case, see here. Michael Warschawski also has an excellent (minus a few ideological adjectives I would’ve left out) general background article about Bishara and Israeli Arab politics at the Alternative Information Center.