- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

JERUSALEM Israeli Arab leader Azmi Bishara seems more like an ivory-tower intellectual than a challenge to the powerful Israeli state upon first meeting, sipping cappuccino and quoting John Stuart Mill.

But to many Jewish hard-liners, he is a danger to their country. Mr. Bishara, a political philosopher and member of parliament, was banned last week from running for re-election on the recommendation of Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who cited statements Mr. Bishara reportedly made in support of armed struggle against Israel.

[About 1,000 Israeli Arabs and Jews protested outside the Supreme Court here yesterday in support of Mr. Bishara and Ahmed Tibi, another Israeli Arab barred from running for re-election this month in the Knesset, or parliament, Agence France-Presse reports.

[The court examined the two men's appeals, as well as the cases of three other candidates, and was expected to announce its decision tomorrow, public radio said.

[During yesterday's court session, Mr. Bishara and Justice Edmund Levy sparred over the use of the Arabic word "muqawameh," which the Israeli Arab lawmaker said means "resistance," but cannot be equated with "armed struggle."]

For some, the banning of Mr. Bishara and Mr. Tibi has intensified the question hovering over the country since 1948: Can Israel be both a democracy and a Jewish state?

Mr. Bishara, the only representative in the last Knesset of his Balad (Homeland) Party, which was also banned, is certain the answer is no.

He says of his Jewish critics: "Their problem with me is that I do not agree to live like a guest and accept conditions for being a citizen. I do not derive my citizenship from the Zionist project and the Law of Return," a statute that gives automatic citizenship to Jewish immigrants.

"We are an indigenous people here," he added, drawing a parallel between American Indians and Arab Israelis. "I do not think they are doing me any favor. I did not choose this relationship. I'm not a Mexican who emigrated to the U.S. I'm the Indian, not the Mexican. You gave me citizenship, instead of my homeland you took over. It had better be equal citizenship."

In pushing the legal attack against Mr. Bishara, Mr. Rubinstein stressed what he termed Mr. Bishara's "negating of Israel's character as a Jewish state." The attorney general says that behind closed doors, Mr. Bishara and his activists aim for the destruction of Israel and that his espousal of a "state of all its citizens" camouflages plans for eventually deporting Jews and thereby bringing about an Arab majority.

Mr. Bishara said Mr. Rubinstein is engaged in "lies, distortions and misinterpretations as tools to achieve his real goal: removing the ideological issue I raise." The Supreme Court's pending decision on Mr. Bishara's candidacy will be final.

For Israeli Arabs and Jewish liberals, the banning of Mr. Bishara and Mr. Tibi has translated the campaign for the Jan. 28 elections into heightened alienation between the Jewish majority and Arab minority in Israel the remnant of the Arab community that was mostly expelled or encouraged to leave, or that fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli fighting. Israeli Arab leaders are divided over whether Arabs should boycott the election if the two are not reinstated.

Even hard-liners concede that Israeli Arabs, who number a fifth of the population, have faced severe discrimination in land use, building rights, social services and education. Voting and running for the Knesset have been among the few spheres in which they enjoyed equality.

Mr. Bishara's most controversial public statement, which irked Israelis across the political spectrum, included praise for the Hezbollah militia's campaign against Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon. The statement came as he shared a podium in Syria with Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah and radical Palestinian leaders who deny Israel's right to exist. Likud legislator Yisrael Katz, who backed the ban on Mr. Bishara's candidacy, said it would "enable democracy to defend itself."

Uproar over the statements in Syria led to Mr. Bishara's being stripped of his parliamentary immunity and put on trial for encouraging violence against the state. Those proceedings are still under way.

Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says Mr. Bishara's pronouncements have had an ominous ring for Israelis because they come within the context of the two-year-old intifada. Mr. Alpher says this has persuaded many Jews that Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the ccupied Territories seek Israel's destruction.

"There is a sense among Israelis that is substantiated even among Palestinian opinion polls that this intifada is about destroying Israel, not just having a Palestinian state," he said.

Mr. Bishara says the "state of all its citizens" would gradually dismantle a system that favors Jews and sever the linkage between citizenship and ethnicity on the one hand, and citizenship benefits and performance of duties to the state, such as military service, on the other.

He says the flag, anthem, and other state symbols could continue unchanged since they derive from the "historical memory" of the Jewish majority. But he is adamant that during any peace negotiations, the Palestinians retain their "right of return" to former areas that became part of Israel, something Israelis view as a euphemism for bringing about a Palestinian majority.

Under this transformation, a host of quasi-governmental institutions that operate on behalf of Jews would have to cease functioning, and the Law of Return, which gives Jewish immigrants automatic citizenship, would be changed.

Gad Barzilai, a Tel Aviv University political scientist, says Mr. Bishara should be allowed to run even if many Israelis do not like to hear what he has to say.

"It is a frightening scenario if one has to be a Zionist to participate in Israeli politics. The state is trying to prevent critical views being heard by minority members, and this is a very undemocratic move."

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