Azmi Bishara, under secret investigation by the Shin Bet for violating Israeli laws against consorting with the enemy, has resigned his Knesset seat. In this chess game, it is hard to tell precisely what the motives are of each side in making the moves they have–but clearly Bishara has removed the protective mantle of parliamentary immunity. This would mean that he no longer has legal protections he would’ve had previously to shield himself from prosecution. It also appears to mean that Bishara does not plan to return to Israel anytime soon:
Bishara explained that he does not want to allow lawmakers, particularly rightists, “to hold a festival” over the issue of lifting his immunity as a member of Knesset and deposing him as a member of the parliament. He added that he did not wish to turn the matter into a campaign of incitement against him personally and against the Arab public as a whole.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera following the resignation, Bishara said he was aware that the step would end his parliamentary immunity and that his status would be that of a regular citizen, such that Israel could arrest him or demand his extradition.
He added that he has “no intention of hiding.”
Bishara, who left Israel about a month ago, added that he has no intention of being far from his homeland.
“I will no doubt return, but I will choose the timing of my return by myself,” he said. “This depends on many factors, including consultations with my friends in Israel and in the Arab world.”
Bishara said he would not allow Israeli security officials to “decide the rules of the game for him,” and that he wanted to set the rules himself.
“Now I have become an ordinary citizen,” he said. “Now there are new rules for the game in which I define the limits, rules where the investigation does not touch my ideological and political position nor my social standing within the Palestinian people.”
Bishara was quoted Saturday as saying in Egypt that he was considering staying abroad because he feared a long jail sentence and an end to his political career.
A fiery Arab nationalist lawmaker, Bishara told a group of Egyptian intellectuals late Saturday that he might not return to Israel, to avoid a trial.
“I will not venture going back while these threats still stand,” Bishara was quoted as saying by the intellectuals meeting with him. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Personally, I don’t think I would’ve made the choices Bishara did. But I cannot fault him because there are risks and advantages to any choice he might make. I would’ve preferred that he dare the Shin Bet to charge and prosecute him and that he dare the Knesset to remove his immunity. I would’ve embraced prison if I lost in precisely the way that Marwan Barghouti has. No doubt, he would’ve emerged from imprisonment a lion of his people and its future political leader. It seems clear that one day Barghouti is destined to become president of Palestine. And who knows, had he stayed, Bishara might’ve been destined to become a future prime minister or president of Israel. Certainly were this ever to happen it would have to be a much differently constituted Israel than at present. But much stranger things have happened.
By resigning and remaining out of the country, Bishara takes a calculated gamble that he can make the Shin Bet pay in other ways for its persecution. First, it cannot get to him. Second, he is free to lecture and build a political movement outside Israel in the Arab diaspora. He will undoubtedly be welcomed as a martyr in whatever Arab communities he visits. He will be the DeGaulle of the Israeli Arabs. Though self-exiled, this will be little noted among his supporters. For them, his exile was precipitated by Shin Bet persecution.
I predict that both the Shin Bet and Israeli government will live to regret this entire episode. While it is possible that Bishara, uprooted from his people and country, will fade into irrelevance, I wouldn’t bet on it. I’d bet the other way. Unfortunately for the Israeli intelligence establishment, they usually bet the wrong way on these wagers as they did in Lebanon last summer. And I believe they bet the wrong way this time. Bishara will write a book. It will sell millions of copies. He will do TV interviews all over the world. He will write op-eds in the world’s major newspapers. He will address parliaments (not the U.S. Congress of course–that will probably take a decade or so). He will raise funds, create a diaspora nationalist Arab movement.
I don’t know how much of the above will happen. But I don’t think I’m far off. All the Shin Bet has done has created a legend. Whether you love Bishara or hate him, the secret investigation and hounding will have precisely the opposite effect of what Israel hoped. He will not be silenced. He will not be rendered ineffective. He will not be shamed before his people.
But if I were the Shin Bet I’d start smearing him now as fast and loudly as I could before his reputation has a chance to take hold on a world stage. Get all that dirt out on him that you have. Prove to the world that he’s a heel, a charlatan, a thief. Whatever. I don’t think it will persuade many other than Israel’s partisans. But they oughta try. Otherwise the Arab DeGaulle (also called the ‘Palestinian Herzl’ by Danny Rubinstein) will take shape before their very eyes.