Azmi Bishara is not a poor Palestinian. The Israeli parliamentarian - at the center of a controversy heightened by the fact that a court gag order has embellished the episode with irrefutable rumors - comes from a middle-class Christian family from Nazareth, reportedly owns comfortable homes in Haifa and Jerusalem, and had a flourishing career as a philosophy lecturer before entering the Knesset in 1996 as a member of Balad (an acronym for the National Democratic Assembly) which ran together with the Communist list, Hadash.
Usually the question of whom - and what - Bishara represents comes up when he makes one of his increasingly radical statements or on one of his plentiful trips to countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations, to put it mildly. Or sometimes both, as in June 2001 when Bishara called upon the Arab world to "unite against the warmongering Sharon government" at the ceremony marking the death of Syrian president Hafez Assad. The event was attended by Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who was cheered on by Bishara during last summer's war for "having lifted the Arab people's spirits."
How do you say "hutzpa" in Arabic? Just ask Bishara, who used the parliamentary immunity granted him by his Knesset membership to protect him from indictment for his blatant agitation.
But first you have to find him, which is not easy as lately the issue of Bishara's loyalties has resurfaced because of a trip from which some say the 50-year-old MK might not come back, presumably for fear of arrest having crossed the point of no return at some enemy border, real or metaphorical.
Bishara's political career started early - in 1974 he founded the National Committee of Arab High School Students and he was active in student politics both at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa. His academic life took him both to Bir Zeit University, where he headed the Philosophy and Cultural Studies Department, and to Jerusalem's prestigious Van Leer Institute, where he was a senior researcher and project coordinator, according to the Knesset and Government Directory to the 14th Knesset.
Bishara was always interested in social issues and established an Israel-Arab coexistence movement - Brit Shivyon (The Equality Alliance) in 1991.
Just when Bishara stopped being an Israeli Christian Arab intellectual and became a Palestinian voice in the Israeli House is hard to say. What this transformation represents is essential to understand.
In his first years in the Knesset, where I met him often as the Post's parliamentary reporter, Bishara was still more The Philosopher than The Provocateur. Deep-thinking, softly spoken, smartly dressed, Bishara was media-savvy without resorting to gimmicks. His parliamentary aides and spokespeople at that time, incidentally, were Jewish, profoundly concerned by coexistence and the rights of Israeli Arabs. He was not particularly hardworking - possibly partly due to ill health; he underwent a kidney transplant in 1997 - but his staff was always ready with a well-worded response for almost any occasion and he was happy to be interviewed, which makes his initial silence on his latest trip so resounding.
An example of his early work was an affirmative-action bill that would ensure Arabs representation on the boards of government companies based on a similar law that has increased the number of women in these positions.
The "provocations" came later. In 1999, for example, Bishara actually ran as a candidate for prime minister in the country's first direct elections for the premiership. For him, the candidacy was the message. Admitting he had no chance of winning, running against Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai, he told the Post in an interview: "I am standing for certain political positions, including the interests of the Arab minority, that are not represented by any of the other candidates.
"I am talking about the civil and political rights of the Arabs; the severe problems of the Arab sector that have not been addressed, let alone solved, in the past five decades; the fact that there are no Arabs in the decision-making process concerning the Arab population itself; the fact that there is almost no Arab involvement in the administration of Arab education; the fact that Arab academics are still not employed in many companies, especially in government institutions; the fact that there are scores of Arab villages in the country that are not recognized by the government and thousands of people are not getting services..."
Bishara said his decision to run for the premiership, although he backed out at the last minute, helped highlight the problems of the Israeli Arab sector: "I want young Arabs to know that they are full citizens and to be proud of that and not be ashamed of the fact they are Arabs and not sit on the margin of Israeli politics and be satisfied with that. It is a message to them that they have equal rights, while sending a similar message to young Jews that should also be taken seriously."
The message came across loud and clear in both Hebrew and Arabic.
In fact the many calls to bar Balad from later elections - based partly on Bishara's anti-Israel stand and his shortlived political partnership with Ahmed Tibi, Yasser Arafat's former aide - were fueled by the fear of democracy gone wrong. The Central Elections Committee, backed by attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein, disqualified the party in 2003 on the grounds that Bishara and Balad "sought to destroy the Jewish character of the state and supported the armed struggle against it." The Supreme Court overturned the ruling.
Balad's party manifesto calls for a democratic, secular state as the only way for Arab citizens to achieve full cultural, national and minority rights, as well as for a just peace with the Palestinians based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with its capital in east Jerusalem.
The party platform and Bishara's charismatic nature attracted a younger, primarily secular, intellectual elite in the Arab sector, making it less than popular with the old-style Arab parties which saw the number of their mandates fall with Balad's rise.
By May 2001, the height of the "Second Intifada," Bishara's metamorphosis was almost complete and he drafted a basic law to recognize the Arab minority as a national minority with collective rights. Under the bill, the state would have had to recognize the "special connection of the Arab minority to the Palestinian people and the rest of the Arab people."
The heightened speculation of where Bishara will end up - the rumors have him destined for an Israeli prison or a home and job in the Gulf - came at an awkward time for Israeli Arabs. In fact news of his trip coincided with the news that Israeli security forces had managed to thwart a Hamas plot for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in which the driver of the car loaded with 100 kg. of explosives had exploited his Israeli identity card - gained by marrying an Israeli woman thanks to a family reunification policy.
And here lies the true tragedy of Israeli Arabs. The issues Bishara was elected to represent still exist, mostly unresolved. As Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, and the week after that Independence Day, Israelis - Arabs and Jews - have a heightened sensitivity. One doesn't expect Bishara and his constituents to stand to attention on Yom Ha'atzmaut and sing Hatikva but both the Arab and the Jewish citizens of the country deserve better than the cynical manipulation of our democratic and legal system, that can only lead to disaster for all.
The writer is editor of the International Edition of The Jerusalem Post.