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Challenging the democracy and legitimacy of Israel

The Daily Star – 22 July 2003

Confronted by a new generation of Arab-Israeli leaders challenging the Jewish state’s claim to be democratic, Israeli authorities have stepped up their battle to control the country’s indigenous Arab minority according to leading Israeli analyst Asad Ghanem.
 
The two most charismatic figures among the Palestinian minority, Islamic leader Sheikh Raed Salah and secular nationalist Azmi Bishara, have been victims of concerted campaigns aimed at delegitimizing them as politicians, and charging them with criminal offenses. Both have fallen foul of the political establishment due to their skills in articulating opinions that challenge the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
 
According to Ghanem, an academic from Haifa University, the Israeli right wing has a vested interest in soiling the reputation of the most prominent leaders of the Arab community. “By de-legitimizing the Arab parties and their leaders, (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon’s Likud Party believes it can instill fear in Jewish voters and keep itself in power for decades,” Ghanem argued.
 
Last month Salah, the leader of the extra-parliamentary northern Islamic Movement, was charged with funneling money to the Palestinian militant group Hamas. After being investigated for two years by the security services, his arrest was the culmination of a long-standing campaign to discredit him and his party.
 
Salah is considered by Israel’s intelligence services to be a threat mainly because of his talent for mobilizing the Arab community – a fifth of the Israeli population. His rallies in his hometown of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel regularly draw crowds of 50,000.
 
Bishara, a secular Christian, is seen in a similarly menacing light. While Salah speaks to a large and growing Islamic constituency, Bishara poses a different problem: He speaks to the world outside Israel, to intellectuals and human rights activists in Europe and America and to the opinion-formers of the Arab states. For many outside Israel, Bishara is one of the main sources of their critical ideas about Zionism. To many Israeli politicians, his status as a member of the Knesset – and the high-profile platform it provides him with – is the last straw.
 
To understand the methods employed by Israel to demonize its internal political opponents it is worth comparing the relationship the Jewish state has with Bishara and his Tajamu party and the other main secular party, Jubha.
 
Jubha is the longest-standing of the Palestinian minority’s parties, an outgrowth of the original Israeli Communist Party, known as Maki, a joint Jewish-Arab movement created shortly after the birth of Israel in 1948.
 
The party split in 1965 into Jewish and Arab-dominated factions, with support for the Jewish group waning as the bonds between the Soviet Union and several Arab states strengthened. The Arab party, renamed Rakah, increased its strength, drawing in a coalition of student, workers’ and women’s organizations and public committees to form the Democratic Front, or Jubha, in the early 1970s. By the 1977 national election it was winning half the Arab vote.
 
But it has struggled to compete with the new nationalist and Islamic movements that emerged in the 1980s.
 
These parties better articulated the attitudes of a new generation than Jubha. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s only reinforced the trend against Jubha. There has been a steady decline of support ever since, only partially reversed by pacts with Tajamu in 1996 and Ahmed Tibi’s Taal Party in 2003. Today Jubha’s core support probably rests at about 20 percent of voters and is likely to continue falling.
 
As with all the minority’s parties, Jubha has clashed repeatedly with the Israeli establishment. But the party’s confrontations with the establishment do not suggest that it poses any threat to the state.
 
Jubha’s role is as the star in a well-understood pantomime of confrontation between Arab politicians and the security forces over discrimination issues, particularly land confiscations. However, on wider ideological questions – such as the legitimacy of a Jewish state – it is a prisoner of its own message of “coexistence” between the country’s two main national groups.
 
Jubha’s clashes with the authorities contrast strongly with Bishara’s tactics, which have upset just about every shade of opinion among the Jewish public and leadership.
 
Bishara’s Tajamu Party is the latest and most confident manifestation of a nationalist stream among the Palestinian minority which began briefly in the early 1960s with the Nasserist al-Ard movement, banned in 1965.
 
Bishara’s party was in many ways an opportunistic union of frustrated nationalist elements within the population.
 
While Tajamu’s rallying cry for Israel to abandon its Jewish character and be a “state of all its citizens” was by no means new, Bishara gave the slogan a combative edge by also demanding that Israel’s Arab citizens be recognized as a national minority with rights enshrined in law for cultural and institutional autonomy.
 
In a country where for decades the authorities relied on a significant number of the minority voting for “Arab lists” – supplied by the main Zionist parties like Labor and Likud – this has been seen as nothing less than a call to revolt.
 
Bishara was elected for the first time in 1996 on a joint list with Jubha but his differences of style and thinking soon split the alliance apart. In 1999 Bishara ran in an uncomfortable pact with Tibi, winning them both a seat.
 
Only in 2003 did Bishara have the confidence to stand on a Tajamu-only list, being rewarded with three seats. It suggested that his message was winning an audience among the minority and that he had managed to build his party into a serious political machine.
 
Paradoxically, much of Bishara’s support is drawn from what are disparagingly known as “Arab Zionists” – voters who once backed Meretz or the Arab lists presented by the Labor Party. This strange phenomenon Ghanem explains thus: “Bishara could not convert the supporters of Jubha or the Islamists.
 
“Jubha’s core support is almost tribal, and the supporters of the Islamic parties were never going to be persuaded by him. So the challenge he faced was to recruit voters who backed the Zionist parties.”
 
For these reasons, Bishara has been seen by the Israeli establishment as a threat that needs neutralizing.
 
This began in earnest in the wake of the October 2000 protests when Bishara found himself – along with Salah – the focus of investigations by the Or Commission, a judicial inquiry into the deaths of 13 Arab-Israelis at the hands of the security forces.
 
Bishara is currently under warning for his alleged role in inciting the minority through his speeches, effectively a charge that he created an atmosphere that contributed to the violence. The commission is expected to issue its final report in the coming weeks.
 
The choice of Bishara as the commission’s main “Arab scapegoat” came amid a chorus of criticism of the MP by the Shin Bet security services and the attorney-general, Elyakim Rubinstein, that was quickly taken up by the Israeli media. It was clear that the government wanted Bishara discredited.
 
Its next chance came in June 2001, when Bishara was invited to deliver a speech in Syria on the anniversary of the death of the late President Hafez Assad. In his speech Bishara lauded Hizbullah’s resistance activities in south Lebanon.
 
On his return he was interrogated by the police, and Rubinstein asked the Knesset to lift his parliamentary immunity from prosecution so that he could be tried for sedition. In a precedent-setting move, the Knesset duly stripped Bishara of his protection.
 
In late 2001, Bishara found himself facing two criminal trials: one for humanitarian trips he organized to reunite elderly Arab-Israeli families with relatives in Syria they had not seen for decades; the second over the speech he had made in Syria.
 
The trials attracted a great deal of negative publicity for Israel. Some observers believed the courts would want to drop the cases as quietly as possible – as in fact happened with the Syria trips trial.
 
The court is dragging its feet in deciding whether to pursue the second and more important trial – over freedom of speech – more than a year after lawyers presented their preliminary arguments.
 
Interestingly, after the apparent failure of the Bishara trials, Salah has become the next target for criminal proceedings. His arrest and imminent trial have attracted almost no publicity outside Israel and Ghanem believes the courts will convict Salah.
 
With Bishara’s second trial unlikely to lead to a conviction, his opponents have sought other ways to silence him.
 
In January this year the attorney general, again backed by the secret service, used his powers to submit for the first time ever a motion to ban both Bishara and his Tajamu Party from running in the general election later that month.
 
Rubinstein claimed that he had secret evidence supplied by the Shin Bet showing that Bishara was a security threat. He also accused Bishara of contravening the country’s election laws by supporting terrorist organizations and by denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
 
Bishara won a reprieve only after the Supreme Court, in a majority decision, overruled Rubinstein.
 
There is no doubt that Bishara, like Salah, is severely testing the limits of tolerance of a state founded on the principle of ethnic privilege. The campaigns against both are likely to continue.
 
But Ghanem believes Salah may prove the more formidable adversary, because of his determination to make the Arab community self-sufficient and his party’s adamant insistence on boycotting national elections. In January 2003, 37 percent of Arabs failed to turn out, the biggest election boycott ever by the minority and one whose success was largely attributed to Salah.
 
“The Israeli authorities are happy as long as the minority is fragmented and disorganized in its strategies,” said Ghanem. “Salah has earned the whole community’s respect and his election boycott has started to change attitudes about the legitimacy of the state. He is working on building up the community from inside, without the help of the establishment. That is the biggest threat of all.”

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