- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

TEL AVIV — Accusations that a top Israeli Arab politician liaised with Hezbollah agents during last summer’s Lebanon war is aggravating relations between the Jewish state’s political establishment and the country’s one-fifth minority.

An Israeli court this week lifted a gag order on some details of the investigation against former Knesset member Azmi Bishara, which include aiding the “enemy” during wartime and money laundering.

It’s the first time an Arab parliament member in Israel has faced a treason investigation. Mr. Bishara, who was previously indicted for praising Hezbollah, has been accused by police of evading questioning.

Mr. Bishara denies the charges, but has extended a trip outside of the country for weeks for fear of being arrested. Earlier this week, he delivered a letter to the Israeli Embassy in Cairo to announce his resignation from parliament.

“This is an effort to carry out a political assassination,” said Jamal Zahalka, a parliament member from Mr. Bishara’s Balad party. “He scares [the Jewish majority] because he is a pan-Arab leader, and has championed the idea of a country of all its citizens.”

Mr. Bishara’s high-profile trips to Damascus, Syria, and meetings with leaders of Hamas have earned him the ire of moderate and right-wing politicians in Israel. They also raised questions about conflicting loyalties among Israeli Arabs, who identify themselves as Palestinian.

During the recent war with Hezbollah, the Arab minority was critical of the Israeli offensive in Lebanon even though Katyusha rockets fired from the other side of the border often landed in their communities.

“Israeli authorities have to do everything to arrest him, bring him back and press charges,” said Jewish parliament member Zevulun Orlev. “It’s inconceivable that he would be able to find political asylum, especially among those people who he is accused of sharing information with.”

First elected to parliament 11 years ago, Mr. Bishara is credited with being the first politician to infuse Arab nationalism into Israeli Arab politics to challenge the country’s Jewish character.

A Christian literary intellectual, he promoted the idea that Arab citizens of Israel should be granted a special status as a national minority and receive autonomy in certain fields such as education. That position has been openly adopted in recent years by Arab civil rights groups in Israel.

The accusations against Mr. Bishara “will leave a deep, deep imprint on Arab politics in Israel,” said Elie Rekhess, a political scientist from Tel Aviv University now a visiting professor at Northwestern University. “They’re undergoing a process of change and radicalization.”

The term “Arab Israelis” refers to Palestinians who remained inside of the borders of Israel after its war for independence in 1948. Even though they were offered citizenship, they were placed under military rule during the state’s first two decades.

A high-profile indictment of Mr. Bishara could strengthen Arab alienation from political participation, observers warned.

“This could lead us to a dead end in relations,” said Rami Bathish, an Arab author and commentator. “They are looking at us as citizens of an enemy country rather than as citizens of the country.”


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