I have met two men who were later accused of treason. It’s nothing to be proud of. Both of them were Knesset members when I was The Jerusalem Post’s parliamentary reporter. Although it was many years ago, in the mid-1990s, there were early signs that both Azmi Bishara and Gonen Segev didn’t take pledges to work for the benefit of the country seriously.
I first wrote about Bishara’s dismal metamorphosis from philosopher to political provocateur in April 2007 when he literally crossed the line and absconded to Qatar, where he is now a media star, rather than face charges of treason and/or aiding the enemy in wartime for helping Hezbollah during Lebanon II.
Bishara, now 61, likes to present himself as a poor Palestinian. He is not. He comes from a middle-class Christian family from Nazareth, reportedly owned homes in Haifa and Jerusalem, and had a successful career as a philosophy lecturer before entering the Knesset in 1996 as a member of Balad, which ran together with the Communist list, Hadash.
As I noted at the time of his sudden disappearance, “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 Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who was cheered on by Bishara during last summer’s war for ‘having lifted the Arab people’s spirits.’”
I met the deep-thinking, softly spoken, smartly dressed Bishara often during his early years in the Knesset, and noted that he was media-savvy without resorting to gimmicks, at least in the beginning.
He was not particularly hardworking – possibly partly due to ill health as he underwent a kidney transplant in 1997 – but his initial proposals were serious.
I recall, for example, an affirmative- action bill that called for Arab representation on the boards of government companies based on legislation that had boosted the number of women in such positions. However, later he wanted to grab headlines, and in 1999 Bishara declared his candidacy in the country’s first direct elections for prime minister.
He knew he had no chance of winning – he was running against Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai – and swiftly backed down, but he had made his point, saying: “I am standing for certain political positions, including the interests of the Arab minority, that are not represented by any of the other candidates.”
He was originally a legitimate politician (whether or not you agreed with his views) and his transformation into a radical and then suspected traitor (too cowardly to face the charges) was a tragedy, in particular for the majority of the law-abiding Israeli-Arab population whom he professed to represent and could have helped.
Bishara became a symbol of the cynical manipulation of the democratic system.
Segev in many ways is even worse.
This week it was announced that the 62-year-old former doctor and former minister, who has been living for several years in self-imposed exile in Nigeria, had been arrested for spying for Iran, having even traveled there to meet his handlers. It remains to be seen whether or not he sold his soul to the devil, but he has already served time in prison for smuggling 32,000 Ecstasy pills from Amsterdam to Israel (risibly claiming he thought they were M&Ms).
He was also convicted of forging an extension on his diplomatic passport to avoid being searched. And he was caught (on camera) trying to defraud a credit-card company, reporting his card had been stolen in Hong Kong, just after using it to withdraw thousands of dollars. In addition, there were reports of him trying to undercut the Israeli defense establishment with cheap weapons deals.
I always found Segev arrogant, the type of man who thought that being a young, good-looking doctor automatically gave him extra rights and credit. I can’t remember any noteworthy legislation he proposed during his four years in the Knesset.
He shot to public attention when in 1992 he was elected, without prior political experience, on Rafael Eitan’s right-wing Tsomet list. Eitan’s later loathing for Segev was ahead of its time.
In 1994, Segev split from Tsomet and formed a new faction, Yiud, along with Alex Goldfarb and Esther Salmovitz, who like him owed their Knesset seats to Eitan. In return for being granted the position of energy minister, Segev supported the Second Oslo Accord that Tsomet so opposed.
His vote together with that of Goldfarb, who had been appointed deputy minister of construction and housing, allowed Oslo II to pass 61:59 in October 1995.
Many on the political Right would say that it was the first sign that he was selfish, greedy – and for sale.
His political career ended the following year. His career as would-be businessman and (allegedly) spy has now also come to an abrupt halt, leaving the Israeli public (and the intelligence agencies) wondering what information he sold or gave away to the Iranians. And what potential harm it has caused the country’s security, apart from the obvious blow in the field of psychological warfare.
According to various media reports, Segev claims that he had been a double agent, not serving Iran, to enable him to return home to Israel “as a hero” and regain his medical license, revoked after his drug-deal conviction.
That might be the hardest story for him to sell yet.
Incidentally, when in 2002 the Shin Bet warned him that he was a potential Hezbollah kidnapping target, he dismissed the fears. (Former IDF colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum was abducted by the terrorist organization in 2000, reportedly while in Dubai to complete a drug deal. He was returned in 2004 in a prisoner swap.)
In an op-ed in Yediot Aharonot this week, Yonatan Yavin noted that “satirist Einav Galili wrote on Facebook that ‘Segev is such an idiot that if they were to do a James Bond movie on him it would be called Agent 000.’ I’d call him Dr. No.”
It’s good that we can laugh, but the joke’s on us. This is not the spy who loved us.
As Yavin put it: “The entire system is struck by mass stupidity when it comes to casting. Fact: It allows someone with a criminal mind (not particularly bright, apparently) to become an officer, doctor, and finally also a government minister. And if you say ‘But who knew?’ I’ll tell you: Someone knew. Someone always knows and ignores it. It’s a pattern.”
And indeed Segev, the former energy minister turned drug dealer and alleged spy, already belongs on a long and ignoble list including a former president, prime minister, finance minister, health minister, interior minister and others who have served time in prison on a range of charges from rape (in the case of ex-president Moshe Katsav) to corruption (Ehud Olmert, Avraham Hirschson, Shlomo Benizri and Aryeh Deri).
That I met Bishara and Segev while they were serving as Knesset members in the mid-1990s (along with everyone else in that excruciatingly non-exclusive club of politicians who landed in jail) is disheartening to say the least.
When politicians are willing to sell their principles, we all pay the price. When they are willing to betray their country, the cost is unbearably high.
It’s time for the public to insist that party candidates have political convictions of the right kind: the kind not for sale and that won’t take them from the House to the email@example.com
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