Politics: The rise of 'Bish-Arabism'

Why all the buzz about Azmi Bishara's sudden absence?

Bishara 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
Bishara 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
The focus of Israel's Hebrew and Arabic media this week was on whether Balad leader Azmi Bishara would soon return to Israel or remain permanently abroad to escape prosecution for alleged crimes. Newspapers sent correspondents to seek out Bishara in Amman, had reporters camp out near his home in Nazareth and published eulogies summarizing his political career. Anyone distantly related to him or who ever worked for him became an instant celebrity sought after for interviews. But regardless of whether he strolls back to Israel across the Sheikh Hussein Bridge this weekend, or is granted permanent asylum in one of the Gulf states, Israelis have not heard the last word from Bishara. The outspoken Bishara has never been known for his silence, and he might never be quieter than he was this past week when he was limited by a combination of legal issues and his desire for privacy. If he comes back to Israel, whatever he says will make immediate headlines, and chances are he will not have anything positive to say about three of his pet peeves: the Israeli legal system, media and democracy. If he remains abroad, he will be a sought-after commentator on "Israeli affairs" in the Arabic media. His brother, Marwan, already fills that role on Al-Jazeera, and he could serve as a lethal weapon against Israel if he takes a job at the rival Al-Arabiya network. Even if Bishara were incarcerated in solitary confinement, or suddenly hit by a truck amid mysterious circumstances, his Knesset colleagues and experts on Israeli Arabs agreed that his legacy would remain - or, as right-wing MKs said, "The damage is already done." In other words, even without Bishara, "Bish-Arabism" would live on. BISH-ARABISM COULD be defined as a radical and rapid shift among Israeli Arabs - especially their representatives in the Knesset - from relative moderation to extremism, spearheaded by Azmi, who himself went from being an advocate of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel to a preacher against Israel's existence. Bar-Ilan University law professor Yedidia Stern, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, calls Bishara the intellectual spearhead in opposing Israel as a Jewish state, as opposed to Islamic Movement head Sheikh Raed Sallah, who is doing the same on the religious level. "Before Bishara, most Arab Israelis didn't talk about identity, but about equality," Stern says. "They talked about defending minorities, as opposed to changing the identity of the state as a state. Bishara isn't seeking equality, but to take the identity of the state away from the Jewish majority." Stern says that when Bishara talks about Israel as "a state for its citizens" instead of a Jewish state, he means maintaining the identity of the Palestinians and the Arab counties, while making Israel a state without an identity, one step away from ceasing to exist. According to Stern, as long as Bishara acts within the law, his right to express himself must be protected, and he can only be fought in the marketplace of ideas. Police will have their say about whether Bishara crossed a red line when he visited Syria and Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War. Stern says the perception that Israel did not win the war strengthened Bishara and Salah on the Israeli Arab street. Stern warns that the increasing extremism of Arab Israelis will only harm their cause politically, because the Left will abandon them and stop defending them, while the Right will become stronger. Before Bishara, the Arab MK considered most on the margins was Tawfik Toubi, a communist who sparred with Rightists in the Knesset for more than 40 years. When he retired in 1990, his opponents on the Right were quoted as saying that they would unfortunately end up missing him because they would like his successors even less. "Toubi was an Israeli Arab who lived in Israeli culture and saw the state as a challenge that his constituents had to accept," Stern says. "These [current Arab MKs] are Palestinians who live against their will in Israel and want to change the state." Israeli Arab MKs from outside Bishara's party were uncharacteristically silent this week - some because they have followed Bishara's lead to the extreme, and others because they haven't. The former had to protect themselves legally; the latter had to protect themselves politically. But former Hadash MK Issam Mahoul, who has known Bishara for decades, since they studied in university together, lashed out at Israeli Jews for painting Israeli Arabs as extremists instead of looking in the mirror. He says there has been an attempt to portray the entire Arab population negatively because of Bishara. "This obsession with whether Israeli Arabs are extreme and where it comes from is turning everything upside down," Mahoul says. "The political thought among Israeli Jews has become more extreme. The deputy prime minister [Avigdor Lieberman] is a fascist who believes in transferring Arabs. This is the real extremism and not the beliefs of Azmi Bishara or any other Arab MK." Bishara is sure to make similar arguments whenever he resumes talking to the press. But the legal evidence against him could come out first and speak even louder, sealing his fate.