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November 30, 2001
Israeli Democracy

By Dr. Azmi Bishara


Israeli politics is regulated by democratic principles based on Zionist ideological tenets. The most important of these tenets are: The jewishness of the state, Aliya or the absorption of Diaspora Jews and Israeli citizenship based on such values as military service, settlement and integration. It is unmistakable that this structure is full of contradictions that strain present-day Israeli political culture.

The relative modernity of this structure is at odds with the impossibility of separating state and religion, because it is simply not possible to separate between the Jewish religion and the Jewish nation, as well as between the right of citizenship and affiliation to a religion because of the "(Jewish) right of return." Historically, this type of Jewish democracy was built on the vestiges of the Palestinian people and its social order, and is still held captive by this paradox. Moreover, the paradox has been inflamed by Israel's involvement in an occupation that forcibly abrogates a people's right to self-determinationon its native land.

These two paradoxes tie in with a third which is the main subject of this article between the Zionism of the state on the one hand, and the proliferation of democracy and equality to cover 20 percent of Arab citizens hailing from the country's indigenous people and who stayed on after the Nakba (or 1948 catastrophe).

In terms of Western liberal democratic values, such a paradox is more harmful to the democratic makeup of the state than the fact of occupying another people. After all, most European democracies went through colonial periods that didn't fundamentally affect the structures of their political systems.

While we beg to differ with this view, and even with such an analogy being made, a democratic consensus has formed on the importance of equal citizenship as the sine qua non of democracy, as well as the importance and sensitivity of the issue of minority rights.

Issues such as these have no acceptable solutions in a situation where the state is defined both as a Jewish state and as a state for Jews (not for its citizens) at the same time.

That is why Israel has always tried hard to strike a balance between built-in racial discrimination against Arab citizens on the one hand, and her need to avoid appearing as an apartheid state within her international borders on the other.

This balance was disturbed on several occasions, but was usually regained to the advantage of Arab citizens who have benefited from an ever expanding margin of rights. Arab citizens have on the whole been enjoying improving rights in the Jewish state for a number of reasons, among which are the increasing power of the Israeli ruling establishment, rising economic prosperity, and social progress within the Arab community itself which has been increasingly vociferous in its rejection of the gap separating its conditions from those of the Jewish majority.

Nevertheless, and despite the enhancement of Arab rights compared to previously, particularly when Arabs were subjected to direct military rule, the gap separating the development of Arab and Jewish citizens has been widening. Nor has the issue of racial discrimination been addressed.

Moreover, contradictions between the Arab citizens and state policies have been increasing as a result of the amplification of national awareness amongst Arab citizens for a variety of reasons we need not dwell upon here.

Israel did not engender an "Israeli nation" because it chose to underscore the state's Jewish identity. At the same time, the wager on a crisis of identity fragmenting the Arab citizens, marginalizing them and preventing them from organizing themselves as a national group belonging to the Arab nation and the Palestinian people proved misplaced.

Jewish democracy can tolerate Arab citizens as guests so long as they respect the rules of hospitality. In other words, Israel can tolerate the presence of those Israeli-Arabs who agree to remain on the margins of both Arab society and Israeli society. She has no problems with co-opting those Arab citizens who agree to transform themselves into half-Israeli, half-Arab hybrids chameleon-like opportunists with no clearly defined cultural identity who try to please both Israelis and Arabs at will; pathetically trying to win all worlds after they have lost their own souls.

As a response to this phenomenon (which was gaining in strength and was on the verge of pervading the mainstream), we have been trying to propose a democratic ideological alternative that asserts a Palestinian Arab identity of different hues of course, but not half-Arab.

Our proposal insists that full citizenship is a precondition for equality, and there is a contradiction between full equality and the state's Zionist identity. This contradiction is no reason for us to abandon our calls for equality; it only stresses the fact that equality is at odds with Zionism. This is a problem with Zionism, not with equality.

This liberal democratic thesis is seen in Israel as being so radical as to almost violate the legal guidelines imposed on any ticket competing in parliamentary elections. Since this message was adopted in the shape of a political party running for parliamentary mandates, a new type of rivalry has developed within the Arab community demanding more forceful assertion of its Palestinian/Arab identity and total equality.

A campaign targeting Arab members of the Knesset (and Arabs generally), citing their political positions vis-a-vis the Palestinian cause, has been escalating ever since Benjamin Netanyahu came to office (in 1996). The objective has been to de-legitimize Arab MPs on the pretext that their political loyalties clash with their citizenship.

Incitement against Arab MPs within the Knesset reached a crescendo during the intifada by exploiting the contrived atmosphere of hostilities as well as the chauvinist hysteria that overwhelmed and dominated public life in Israel.

During that period, the decision was taken to declare open war against Arab MPs.I myself was shot in the shoulder by Israeli police in June 1999 while taking part in a march to protest Israel's demolition of Arab homes in Lydda. The case, however, was closed "for lack of evidence." Also, hundreds of Jewish extremists attacked my house last October.

Again, no arrests were made, despite the presence of police at the time. In fact, police assaults on Arab MPs became almost routine. There was no "immunity" as such, save for the symbolic one preventing the state from committing Arab MPs to trial.

For the first time in the history of the Knesset in which a member of Parliament is stripped of his/her immunity for political statements he/she made, the Israeli legislature recently stripped me of my parliamentary immunity. I was indicted on two counts:

1. Accusations relating to statements I made on two occasions: in a protest meeting held last June 5 at the village of Umm al-Fahm in which I expressed sympathy with the Lebanese Hizbullah and appreciation for its role in rolling back the Israeli occupation. The indictment states that these statements are tantamount to terrorism. The second occasion was on the first anniversary of the death of president Hafez Assad of Syria, in which I called on the Arab world to support the Palestinian intifada. The indictment says that this statement was a call for using violence against the state.

2. Accusations relating to my interceding with the Syrian authorities in order to enable some elderly Arab citizens to visit with their relatives living in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria for the first time in 53 years. In a humanitarian gesture that was much appreciated by Arabs in Israel, Syria agreed to this request. Israel, meanwhile, didn't dare prosecute elderly people for the "crime" of meeting with their relatives possibly for the last time. So they prosecuted Azmi Bishara for "organizing visits to hostile countries without the permission of the Israeli government."

Despite the fact that my colleagues and I have to deal with these indictments seriously, and prepare a robust defense in order to prove my innocence, we realize that the accusations leveled against me are political in nature with political motives and political objectives.

The accusations are political in essence because they are based on Israel's political viewpoint which considers legitimate resistance to be a form of terrorism. The political motive is based on a right-wing Zionist conviction that democratic pluralism must be limited by allegiance to the Israeli/Zionist state. Israel's political objective is to undermine the Democratic National Assembly (Balad) by prosecuting its leadership, and by terrorizing Arab citizens into withholding their support.

That is why our trial must be met with a widespread public reaction that expresses support for Balad's objectives and shows Israel that Arabs cannot be cowed into submission. The trial must also be accompanied by a political debate about the distinction between legitimate resistance and terrorism.

We consider occupation to be a form of political violence directed against innocent people. It is, in other words, a form of terrorism. Similarly, we consider resistance to occupation within certain political and moral constraints to be part of the fight against terrorism.

Israel will try to project my case to liberal opinion in the West as "a democracy defending its existence." Besides my avowed position about how democratic the state of Israel really is, I maintain that the claim is invalid in my case in fact it is turned on its head.

It is we who represent democracy fighting for survival against an assault launched by forces that are by definition anti-democratic. The majority which voted in the Knesset to lift my parliamentary immunity was constituted of movements and forces that are neither liberal nor democratic. Among those movements were extreme right-wing parties and ultra-orthodox parties. Democracies usually fight for their survival against such parties. The upcoming trial, therefore, presents a rare opportunity to discuss how democratic a country Israel really is.

In this saga, the so-called Zionist left has shown not only how impotent it is, but also its moral bankruptcy. To prove that their party is no less patriotic than the Likud, many Labor MPs voted for lifting immunity. Those lawmakers who voted against (such as MP Yossi Sarid), meanwhile, justified their position by saying that they voted for freedom of expression after launching a bitter campaign of lies and slander against me worse than any of the right ever attempted.

The Israeli left distorts our positions, incites public opinion against us, then tries to prove its moral superiority by defending the "freedom of expression in Israeli society." The battle is not over freedom of expression, nor is the Israeli left a believer in the principles of Voltaire. My statements would not have been noticed nor would we have been indicted if we didn't represent a genuine political force, and had there not been a decision to undermine Arab political representation.

The battle, therefore, is over Arab representation. It is about our right as Arabs to organize, about our right to interact with our people suffering under Israeli occupation, and, finally, about the compatibility of Zionism with democracy and equality.

Dr. Azmi Bishara is a member of Knesset and the leader of the National Democratic Coalition. Bishara was stripped of his parliamentary immunity by the Israeli legislature two weeks ago.