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A Jewish state?By Khaled Amayreh
When he chose to move from the academic world to politics nearly four years ago, the Arab-Israeli intellectual and politician, Azmi Bishara, probably knew that his encounter with the Israeli political establishment would not be easy, to put it mildly.
Bishara's ideas of egalitarianism and citizenship are, par excellence, the antithesis of Jewish supremacy claims that give Zionism its shape and ideology and identify the face, heart and soul of the Jewish state.
Last week, Bishara, who leads the National Democratic Alliance, known by its Arabic acronym, BALAD, had "a head-on collision" with the state, when he demanded in a speech to his party members that Israel be a state for all its citizens, just like other normal nation-states around the world.
"It is time for Israel to become a normal country for all its citizens and not to be defined as a homeland for all the world's Jews," said Bishara, calling in particular for the abrogation of the Law of Return which gives all Jews automatic Israeli citizenship. "We must change the image and Zionist character of Israel and take into account that more than a million Arabs live in this country," he said.
Bishara argued that the democratic essence of any state can only exist within the context of a fundamental law treating all citizens equally, irrespective of colour, race or faith. He further pointed out that given the existing definition of Israel as a Jewish state, not a state for all its citizens, "a Palestinian Arab, who holds Israeli citizenship, must be a second-class citizen, whereas a Brooklyn Jew who arrived only yesterday is immediately granted all rights."
He lashed out at the two main political parties in Israel, Labour and Likud, describing the former as "opportunistic and inherently racist" and the latter as "demagogic and wicked".
Bishara's axiomatic statements triggered strong reactions from the Zionist establishment and prompted several Israeli politicians, particularly from the right and religious camp, to call for his prosecution for "expressing hostility to the state" and "questioning its fundamental pillars".
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denounced Bishara's statements as "dangerous", saying they represented a small minority within the Israeli Arab community -- not a very credible suggestion since it implies that over 20 per cent of Israel's population of six million do not want to be treated as equal citizens.
Israeli cabinet member Michael Eitan backed calls for banning BALAD from running in the coming elections, saying "a party which rejects the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state is breaking the law and cannot put forward candidates for elections."
Israeli Attorney-General Elyakim Rubenstein said he would look into the "charges" against Bishara. He pointed out that Bishara's remarks about Israel becoming a state for all its citizens were at odds with the basic law in the Jewish state which stipulates that Israel is a state for the Jews.
Nevertheless, Rubenstein had more serious charges against Bishara, by Israeli standards. Bishara reportedly praised Hizbullah last week, saying the organisation was a "brave nationalist force which has taught Israel some lessons." He added that Hizbullah, which has been fighting against Israeli occupation in south Lebanon, "has, through its firmness and sacrifices, become a symbol in the modern Arab world for the battle against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon."
Eitan responded by saying that Bishara's remarks were "an intolerable apology for Hizbullah, which is a terrorist organisation and our number one enemy."
Israeli law permits the outlawing of political groups on three grounds -- "negating the existence of the state of Israel as a state of the Jewish nation, negating the democratic nature of the state and inciting racism."
The Israeli Central Elections Commission has banned two Arab parties in the past for challenging the notion of Israel as a Jewish state: the Al-Arde or Land Movement in 1965 and the Progressive Movement for Peace in 1988, although the ruling against the latter was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Bishara has not been moved by the intimidation of right-wing groups and members of the Israeli cabinet. He has also refused to retract his statements on the racist nature of the Jewish state and on Hizbullah.
In a recent interview, Bishara castigated the official Israeli attitude toward the Arab minority. He described official treatment of Arabs as amounting to "legal apartheid". He pointed out that there was a fundamental dichotomy between Zionism and democracy, because the former is based on Jewish particularism, which is nothing but a euphemism for racism.
Bishara has always acted as "cannon fodder" in the face of established laws, rules and practices symbolising and perpetuating racism throughout the Zionist regime.
Two years ago, he chose to purchase a house in the Jewish town of Natsret Alet (upper Nazareth), drawing fierce opposition from Jewish circles on the local and national levels.
Moreover, Bishara voiced the idea that an Israeli Arab should run for prime minister, a suggestion that was met with disbelief in the Arab community and apprehension in the Israeli Jewish sector.
Much of the Israeli Zionist anxiety about Bishara's views stems from his efforts to make the one million Arab citizens of Israel conscious of their potential effect in Israeli politics.
Bishara believes that Israeli Arabs cannot possibly achieve either equality or peace (between Israel and the Palestinians) as long as Israeli Arab parties remain subservient to established Zionist parties which are responsible first and foremost for the perpetuation of the existing inequality.
Some observers believe that Bishara's ultimate goal is to bring about a revolutionary transformation in the way Israeli Arabs view themselves with regard to the Zionist establishment.
Hence, he has been a chief advocate of forming a united Arab party in Israel in the hope that Israeli Arabs would translate their numbers into political power.
However, that is not likely to materialise soon, certainly not in the upcoming Israeli elections. But he has, at least, taken the first step in a long journey, and if and when he reaches his destination, the face of Israel's Arab minority, indeed the face of Israel itself, will not be the same.