A new chapter has been opened in the decades-old tale of tension between Israel’s Arabs and Jews.
In the past, such tensions played out in the streets or voting booths, but this time the scene of the drama is the Knesset.
Last week, Israeli legislators voted overwhelmingly to lift the parliamentary immunity of Arab legislator Azmi Beshara. The Nov. 7 vote came after the attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, filed two separate indictments against Beshara.
The first was over a call Beshara made in June, during a speech in Syria, for the Arab world to unite against the “warmongering” government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The speech was made in front of sworn enemies of the Jewish state such as Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and terrorist Ahmed Jibril.
The second indictment was for visits to Syria that Beshara arranged for Israeli Arabs, without the approval of Israeli authorities.
After the Knesset vote, Beshara said he had fallen victim to “extremist nationalist movements” in the Knesset. But he also said he would take no legal action to block the indictments.
“I will prove my innocence in court,” he said.
Indeed, Beshara appears to relish the idea of a trial, where he is likely to try to paint himself as a martyr struggling against allegedly oppressive or racist authorities.
Rubinstein now is free to press charges against Beshara. If so, the ensuing trial will weigh the delicate balance between freedom of speech and the right of a democracy to defend itself against what it considers incitement from an elected official sworn to defend the interests of the state.
A longtime political rival of Beshara, Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, saw last week’s Knesset vote as proof that Israel has a long way to go before it can call itself a democracy.
“The vote has proven once again that Israel is a democracy only for the Jews,” he said.
There is little doubt among critics and supporters alike that Beshara would reap substantial political benefits from a trial. In the eyes of Israeli Arabs, he would be seen as the victim of what the community long has considered an inequitable political system.
At the same time, a trial would strengthen Beshara’s aspirations to be the ultimate defender of the rights of the Israeli Arab population.
Despite such considerations, there is a strong lobby pushing for a legal confrontation.
According to these people, it is high time to send a clear signal to leaders of the Israeli Arab community that if they continue to identify themselves with Israel’s enemies, they may find themselves banned from the Knesset.
Indeed, the Knesset last week approved in an initial vote a bill by Likud legislator Yisrael Katz that would ban any party that advocates armed resistance against Israel. The bill must pass several other rounds of approval before it becomes law.
Tibi later said that if the bill becomes law there will be no Arab Knesset members, because they all support the “struggle against occupation.”
Despite such comments, Tibi was the only Arab politician who hinted recently that Israeli Arabs may need to question whether they have gone too far.
“It is the duty of the minority to aim for greater cooperation with the majority,” he suggested in a recent speech.
Many Israeli Arabs, however, believe Israel has given them little reason to be more cooperative.
The Arab population long has complained of unequal treatment in the provision of government services and in hiring practices that block them from securing civil service jobs.
Yet many Israelis claim that Arab demands go far beyond the realm of equal rights, and would strip the Jews of their right to a state of their own.
Beshara repeatedly has called to transform Israel from a Jewish state into a “state of all its citizens” — a call adopted by virtually all Israeli Arab political parties.
Beshara demands that Israel drop Hatikvah as its national anthem and remove Jewish images, such as the Star of David, from the Israeli flag and other state symbols.
Tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities increased with the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, when Israeli Arabs rioted in sympathy with the Palestinians. Thirteen Israeli Arabs were killed by police.
A Christian born in Nazareth, Beshara has not shied away from the political limelight in his attempts to secure more rights for the Israeli Arab community.
Until his 11th-hour withdrawal from the 1999 race for prime minister, Beshara was the first Israeli Arab to seek the post — and this for a man who tells his constituents that they are Israelis by accident of geography only, but are Palestinian in their hearts.
After earning a doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University in what was then Communist East Berlin, Beshara became the head of the philosophy department at Bir Zeit University, the hotbed of Palestinian nationalism in the West Bank.
In 1996 he was elected to the Knesset on a joint ticket with the Communist Hadash Party.
Now serving as the sole Knesset member of the Balad Party, he is trying to establish himself as the main alternative to the Islamic Movement’s growing influence in Israeli Arab politics.
A longtime champion of equal rights for Israeli Arabs, Beshara wants Israel to grant cultural autonomy to its nearly 1 million Arab citizens. Some Jews warn that this would be a prelude to a demand for secession and even, perhaps, to unification with a Palestinian state in the adjacent West Bank.
Many of Beshara’s political ideas have gained widespread acceptance within Israeli Arab society, and he hopes to parley that into more seats for his party in the next elections.
Regarding the indictments filed against him, Beshara defended the family visits to Syria, saying they were a humanitarian move aimed at allowing elderly Israeli Arabs to meet with family members in Syria before they die.
Israeli citizens are forbidden to travel to Syria, which is technically in a state of war with Israel.
Beshara also denied the incitement charge, saying he had never called for the use of force.
Indeed, his comments in June — when he spoke at a memorial service in Syria for the late President Hafez Assad — were somewhat ambiguous. He did not explicitly call for violence, but left little room for other interpretations.
Beshara is not the only Israeli Arab legislator to run afoul of the authorities.
Two days after the Knesset voted to lift Beshara’s immunity, police questioned Talab El-Sana, a legislator from the United Arab List, over statements justifying a Palestinian shooting attack last August on pedestrians outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
“This was a unique incident because it was not aimed at civilians but at soldiers in the heart of the State of Israel. The Israelis have to understand that if there’s no security for Palestinians, then there won’t be security for Israelis,” El-Sana told Abu Dhabi TV. “There’s no guilt feeling nor need to justify ourselves.”
In another incident that took place 13 years ago, at the height of the first Palestinian intifada, Arab Knesset member Hashem Mahamid urged Palestinians to use “whatever means possible” against Israeli occupation.
Mahamid’s immunity also was lifted, but the affair was soon forgotten.
Given Beshara’s prominence in Israeli Arab politics, the fact that his case is not being forgotten likely will affect relations between Israel’s two communities for a long time to come.
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.