Hands off Azmi! The Dangerous Politics of “A State for All Its Citizens”


Murmurings of a political tsunami are emerging with regards to Israel’s policies towards the “non-Jewish” citizens of the “Jewish democratic state.”  Azmi Bishara, perhaps the most prominent political leader of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, was in the midst of engaging in his routine activities of propagating the rights of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel in various Arab and international fora, when leaks began to circulate in the Israeli media.  It was rumored that the Israeli political establishment was drawing up a list of major charges against him during his absence from the country, and that he would be served with them upon his return, or in coming days.  Although Bishara has faced and survived repeated previous attacks against him and the National Democratic Assembly (NDA) — the political party he leads — the nature of the new charges appear to be so severe that they may force Bishara into the precarious position of having to choose between serving a long jail sentence and being forced into political exile.  Because Bishara has major health issues and was the recipient of a kidney transplant from his brother, serving an extended Israeli jail sentence would be akin to a death sentence for him.  At the same time, his political exile would severely set back the movement he leads for advancing the legitimate demands of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.

The Israeli media has been served a gag order preventing open discussion as to the nature of the charges themselves.  But according to an interview Bishara conducted on 12 April with the Ashams radio station in Nazareth, the charges far surpass anything raised against him previously, and appear to revolve around his conduct during the Israeli war against Lebanon in July/August 2006.  Bishara survived several attempts to suppress him previously, including charges that he was undermining the “Jewish nature of the state,” “supporting terrorism,” and arranging contacts with “enemy states.”  In all cases, Bishara was able to successfully defend himself and have the charges dropped.  But the Israeli military and secret services always promised to get him, including a remarkably frank letter recently sent from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office to an NDA paper, declaring they would combat the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm Israel’s “Jewish or democratic character,” even if that activity was carried out through legal means.

Irrespective of the details of the current unpublished charges, the nature of the latest prosecution against Bishara is entirely politically motivated.  The Israeli political establishment has identified Bishara as enemy number one for years now, and repeatedly incited against him and his movement.  Their “sin” has been nothing more and nothing less than the content of their political demands.  Ever since NDA raised the slogan that Israel should be defined as “a state of its citizens” — as opposed to “the state of the Jewish people throughout the world,” as Israel is currently defined — the Israeli establishment has not wavered from attempting to crush it, to prevent the “infectious” advancement of this political line within the Palestinian Arab citizenry and leadership, and also internationally.

Israel has given such strategic significance to this campaign because it understands only too well that the NDA has placed its finger upon the very contradiction that Zionism cannot resolve.  And it has done so not through armed struggle, or calling for “throwing Jews into the sea,” but through practicing their democratic civil rights to institution building, party building, and eloquent and impassioned liberal humanist and democratic discourse.  Moreover, NDA demands have not only called for full equality of the Palestinian Arab citizenry, but have also included the demand for the state to recognize its Arab citizens as a national minority living in its homeland.  This is intolerable for Zionism because it subverts the current Zionist narrative of exclusive Jewish rights to historical Palestine, and affirms that Palestinians were not just “non-Jews” living in Eretz Yisrael before it was “redeemed,” but were a people who were repeatedly and systematically forced off their land throughout the years to create the “Jewish democratic state” in the first place.

NDA’s discourse has been so successful within the Palestinian public sphere that it has been adopted by virtually all major Arab political parties and institutions of civil society.  This was recently manifested in the publication of four documents prepared by the major Arab political organs in Israel (including Knesset members, NGOs, and the local Arab leadership, known as the Follow-Up Committee), which articulate demands calling for the full democratization of the state.

NDA’s work thus has essentially laid the ground for a major civil rights struggle inside Israel that poses a “threat” to political Zionism which it cannot emerge from unscathed.  Either Israel would be forced to expose its explicit commitment to a “Jewish state,” or it would have to implement full equality before the law and the recognition of Palestinians as a national minority with respective cultural rights, and most importantly, land rights.  It cannot have both.  Nor can it continue to hide from the reality that it is practicing forms of institutional apartheid, not only in the 1967 Occupied Territories, but also within the pre-1967 borders of the state.

Israel’s choice of timing is also not inconsequential.  It understands that the longer it is unable to stem these political tides both locally and internationally, the worse its strategic positioning will be.  Israel essentially fears that if it does not try and root out these trends now, Zionism will increasingly follow the historical path of South African Apartheid.  Israel’s brutal suppression of the Al Aqsa Intifada (killing more than 4,000 Palestinians and displacing thousands others); its crackdown upon the uprising of the Palestinian citizens of Israel in the first weeks of the Intifada, killing 13 Arab citizens; the building of the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank; the war Israel launched against Lebanon last summer; and Israel’s role in the US war and occupation of Iraq have all begun to raise serious questions as to the role Israel plays in the Middle East, and the nature of the state itself.

Progressive analysts as well as international forces in solidarity with the Palestinian people have been slow to recognize that the plight and oppression of 1948 Palestinians is not an isolated “internal Israeli matter” but rather the extension of its policies against the Palestinian people overall.  Upon the eruption of the Al Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, Israel led a systematic campaign against the entire Palestinian national movement and people, and made great advances in destroying the PLO and Palestinian Authority, killed or imprisoned its major political leaders, and actively worked to erode the fabric of Palestinian social and economic well being — essentially attempting to extirpate their rootedness to their land.  The attacks against NDA (as well as other Arab political leaders in Israel, particularly the Islamic movement, led by Sheikh Raed Salah) must therefore be seen within this context.

Moreover these trends gain added significance in the context of two other developments lurking on the horizon.  One is what a military strike against Iran might facilitate as a smokescreen for advancing Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian community inside Israel.  Would Israeli prosecution of Azmi Bishara raise many eyebrows internationally if the Middle East is yet more thoroughly destabilized in the wake of a US (US/Israel?) attack against Iran?

Second, and possibly simultaneously with this first scenario, is the question of Israel’s remarkably open preparations for a massive assault against the Palestinian national movement in Gaza.  The new unity government recently formed there represents, in Israel’s opinion, an intolerable situation because the Palestinians may be able to reconstitute their fragmented political project, end the international boycott against them, and wage a more sustained and organized resistance campaign which could attract serious forces of support to the international campaign to end the occupation.  As the tides of domestic support for the US occupation of Iraq wane, and as the accompanying tides of intolerance towards occupation rise, Israel is only too conscious that this trend does not bode well for its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  As far as Israel is concerned, therefore, the window is closing upon their political future, and it is imperative for the future of political Zionism to push the window back open.

Azmi Bishara’s head is therefore on the chopping block with all the political and moral signification this has for the future of the Palestinian community inside Israel.  Now is the time to raise awareness of these issues and demand “Hands off Azmi!” and support for the Palestinian citizen’s legitimate demand for “A State of All Its Citizens”

Toufic Haddad is the co-editor (with Tikva Honig-Parnass) of Between the Lines: Readings in Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S War Against Terror, forthcoming from Haymarket Books (Summer 2007).  The book contains five essays and interviews with Azmi Bishara, head of the National Democratic Assembly — Tajamu’/ Balad.  He can be reached at tawfiq_haddad@yahoo.com.

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