Analysis: Bishara and the Arab MK's predicament

Arab MK's are sworn in as members of Israel's parliament, but represent a community unreconciled to its existence.

Bishara 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
Bishara 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
If only a quarter of the rumors circulating as to why MK Azmi Bishara is reluctant to return to Israel are true, he certainly doesn't deserve any of our sympathy. But his predicament should at least give us pause to reflect on the impossible nature of an Arab MK's job. They are sworn in as members of Israel's parliament, solemnly obligated to implement the country's laws, but they represent a community that is still unreconciled to the existence of the Jewish state. Sixty years is too short a time to forget the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948, and their MKs are not allowed to become too comfortable in their seats. They are required to perform a balancing act between their role as representatives of an impoverished minority with very real daily needs, and their national duty to challenge the Jewish hegemony and identity of the state. Grandstanding is easier than taking care of municipal budgets. The sewage flowing in the streets of Israeli Arab towns and villages is testimony to the inability of the lawmakers and central authorities to overcome the national confrontation and end inequality. It's interesting to compare the lot of the Arab MKs to that of the other non-Zionist political minority, the haredi politicians. But unlike their Arab colleagues, United Torah Judaism MKs are part of a clear hierarchy: they always listen to their rabbis. Their greatest advantage is that they are not allowed by the rabbis to play a significant role in defense and diplomatic issues, channeling all their efforts into religious affairs and fighting for funds for their community. For this reason, the haredi MKs are usually sought-after coalition partners, easily bought off with budgets and never demanding territorial concessions. The Arab parties, on the other hand, have remained outside government since the state's foundation. They serve a diverse and dysfunctional constituency, including rural patriarchal tribal villages, a radicalized younger generation, an urban intellectual and economic elite, and the growing Islamist sector. Some want to cut a deal with the government and ensure a more prosperous future, but the more politically active are motivated by other interests. These are the supporters that the MKs need to satisfy to secure reelection. And of course they have an additional constituency, the Arab world, which has always looked down upon them as the weak and defeated Israeli Arabs. The MKs have to prove themselves daily on Al Jazeera and the other pan-Arab channels, to show that they are as radical as their Palestinian brothers across the Green Line. That's why in recent years they've stopped calling themselves Israeli Arabs, preferring the name '48 Arabs, in enduring memory of the Nakba. Three decades ago, most Arab MKs were members of Zionist parties, and those belonging to Arab parties were a minority on the margins. Today the Arab members in Labor and the Likud are no more than a fig leaf, vilified in their communities as collaborators and despised by their Jewish colleagues. The cynical way Labor chairman Amir Peretz appointed Ghaleb Majadle as the first Arab minister three months ago to boost his flagging primary prospects only proves how little place there is today for Arabs in mainstream politics. The growing number of independent Arab MKs are the embodiment of their constituents' collective schizophrenia, trying to make it in a country that they would prefer not to exist - at least not in its present form. Bishara was once admired by many Jewish left-wing intellectuals and journalists for his impressive academic credentials and fluency in languages and world literature. But he ultimately became the most poignant example of his community's inability to make peace with Israeli society.