Israeli officials are aghast at a controversial Israeli Arab legislator’s call for the Arab world to unite against Israel.
At a memorial service Sunday in Syria for the late dictator Hafez Assad, Azmi Beshara called on Arab countries and Islamic militant groups to increase their resistance to the Jewish state.
Israeli leaders were outraged, but Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said there was no legal basis for bringing charges against Beshara because Israeli laws do not allow authorities to prosecute a Knesset member.
Rubinstein did suggest, however, that Beshara’s Balad Party could be barred from the next Knesset elections because its leader objects to the existence of the Jewish state.
Beshara was one of 10 speakers at the memorial, which was attended by Arab leaders and militants opposed to Israel’s existence, including the leader of the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
Beshara, who in 1999 became the first Israeli Arab to run for prime minister, is not one to shy away from controversy.
He is known for telling his constituents that they are Israelis by accident of geography only, but are Palestinian in their hearts.
In May, Beshara was questioned by Jerusalem police regarding trips to Syria he organized for Israeli Arab families. Beshara maintains that the trips are for humanitarian purposes — reuniting families split when relatives fled during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence — but Israeli officials fear they could present a security liability.
The case is still being investigated, but has not yet been submitted to the prosecutors office.
Israeli right-wingers often accuse Beshara and other Arab Knesset members of inciting their constituents against the Jewish state, rather than working constructively to find common ground with the Jewish majority.
Beshara’s remarks on Sunday prompted a furor in Israel and calls from some quarters for charges of treason.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer called the remarks “shocking.”
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said Beshara’s parliamentary immunity should be lifted so charges can be brought against him.
Others, however, said the state would be wise not to let Beshara adopt the pose of a “tortured saint.”
“This is exactly what Beshara is looking for — to be tried in a political trial in the state of Israel, which will play into his hands and build him up among the Arab population,” Justice Minster Meir Sheetrit said.
“I propose dealing with him the opposite way, to act within the Knesset Ethics Committee, so that the man will get fitting treatment, as I believe he has very seriously violated the Knesset’s regulations on ethics.”
Beshara said his statements contained nothing he had not said before in Israel.
“This is not the first time I have spoken in Syria, and not the first time I speak in such a forum,” he was quoted as saying from Damascus. “Every word I said at the ceremony I have said dozens of times in Israel and also from the Knesset podium.”
Coming to Beshara’s defense, Knesset member Joseph Paritzky of the Shinui Party said Beshara’s remarks stemmed from what he called the neglect Israel has long demonstrated toward Arab citizens.
Two Knesset committees scheduled hearings this week to debate how to deal with extremist statements made by legislators.
Sheetrit said Beshara had done serious damage to the sensitive state of Arab-Jewish relations within Israeli and had badly harmed the image of Arab citizens.
“In the eyes of the average Israeli, the significance of his remarks is, ‘Look at this MK, who is supposed to represent the Israeli-Arab sector, trying to build up a national resistance — which Israeli-Arabs are party to — against the state of Israel.’
“Does anyone think this does the Arab sector any good?,” Sheetrit asked. “He is personally sawing off the branch he’s sitting on, and is causing serious damage to the Arab population. He, and other Arab members of Knesset who speak out in such an extreme manner.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.