The State of Israel vs. Former MK Azmi Bishara

On May 2, 2007 the Israeli Police announced that former Member of Knesset (MK) Azmi Bishara, head of the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), was under investigation and suspected of the following:

  • Assistance to enemy in war
  • Delivery of information to the enemy
  • Contact with a foreign agent

    In Israeli law, the offense of “Assistance to the enemy during war” is punishable by death.

    This chilling announcement came after multiple attempts by the NDA to lift the gag order imposed on the investigation since it began; a gag order which was exploited by the authorities to spread disinformation about Bishara and his personal and political conduct and to incite the public against him before the investigation was completed.

    In the course of the investigation, which began in March 2007, MK Bishara traveled abroad (to the knowledge of his investigators), only to discover that in his absence the Israeli media, fed by the Israeli security services, had appointed themselves judge, jury, and executioner. Baseless accusations about his past actions and unfounded speculations about his present and future plans became headline news. A fair investigation, let alone a fair trial should charges be pressed, seemed nowhere in sight.

    MK Bishara’s first decision was to resign from the Knesset. Having planned to do so by the end of 2007, in order to resume his intellectual career as a doctor of political philosophy after 11 years of public service, he chose to forego the immunity his parliamentary status affords him. Because in such an atmosphere of vilification, parliamentary immunity is at best absurd, at worst worthless. The gravity of the allegations and the audacity of their fabrication, have left no room for doubt that the State of Israel has cast Azmi Bishara as its “public enemy no. 1.”

    The latest investigation is part of a long-running campaign against the democratically elected leadership of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who, numbering over 1 million people, comprise 20 percent of the population. While persecution has been felt by all Arab political parties, it has been focused primarily on the NDA and MK Bishara as its head. The GSS has declared that the party’s main platform — equality in the form of a democratic “state of all its citizens” rather than an ethnically exclusive state — as dangerous and subversive, noting that special measures must be taken to combat it, even if those measures are “undemocratic.” MK Bishara has suffered countless investigations, two indictments that were ultimately dismissed by the courts, and several attempts to disqualify him and the NDA from participating in elections. Subsequently, the Knesset passed a series of amendments to existing laws, commonly known as the “Bishara Laws,” that impose new limitations on MKs. These new laws institute a range of restrictions on freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and access to and participation in the political system, which most severely affect the Palestinian citizens of Israel and their elected representatives.

    Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000, when Israeli security forces killed 13 Arab demonstrators protesting the escalation of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, the systematic discrimination of the Palestinian citizens of Israel has gone from bad to worse. But the lowest point was, perhaps, during the massive Israeli assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, when any dissenting voice opposing the war was deemed “treasonous.”

    The present allegations against former MK Bishara are rooted in an ongoing campaign to delegitimize the NDA’s political platform, as noted above and detailed below. However, the present allegations come in the wake of his unabashed opposition to the war in Lebanon. Various Israeli politicians and political pundits questioned the right of Arab MKs to express such views. It followed that their right to organize politically and participate in the parliamentary process was also questioned. Several Arab MKs were called “traitors,” “enemies.” a “fifth column” and “foreign agents” because they called for an immediate ceasefire and a diplomatic rather than military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, by extension, the Israeli-Arab conflict. Some right wing politicians, including the Minister of Strategic Threats and Deputy Prime Minister, went so far as to call for the revocation of the citizenship of some 30 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel and, while at it, the execution of “disloyal” Arab MKS.

    Despite the incitement, the NDA continued to oppose the war and condemned Israeli aggression against Lebanese civilians and civilian infrastructures. The NDA co-organized and participated in demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Umm al-Fahm, and Nazareth. Its MKs also visited Beirut after the war to express solidarity with the Lebanese people and their suffering. These actions were consistent with the NDA’s platform, which maintains that the only way to end the worsening conflict between Israel and its neighboring Arab states is through a comprehensive regional peace agreement. As part of such a solution, the NDA firmly believes that there must be comprehensive debate in Israel about the nature of Jewish-Arab relations, based on the principles of civic equality, bi-national rights and mutual recognition.

    However, Israel’s incumbent leadership and the GSS have made it clear that they regard the NDA’s political demands for equality as a menace. Instead of debating the NDA over the merits of its program, they are trying to dismiss the message by criminalizing the messenger, this time in the most extreme way, by alleging offenses that carry the death penalty

    On March 13, 2007, under the headline: “Head of the GSS: The Dangerous Extremism of Israeli Arabs,” Maariv Hebrew daily newspaper reported on a closed meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and senior GSS officials “concerning the Arab minority in Israel, the extent of its steadily decreasing identification with the state, and the rise of subversive elements.” Maariv quoted the assessment of the GSS thus: “Particularly disturbing is the growing phenomenon of ‘visionary documents’ drafted by Israeli Arab elites. At this time, there are four different visionary documents sharing the perception of Israel as a State of all Citizens rather than a Jewish State. The isolationist and subversive aims advocated by the elites might determine a direction that will win over the masses.”

    Following the Maariv report, Fasl al-Maqal, an Arabic language weekly newspaper identified with the NDA, asked the GSS to elaborate on its stated view that the Arab population was dangerously subversive and should be dealt with using “undemocratic measures” because it aimed to change the nature of the state by democratic means. The GSS’s response was not long in coming: “Section 7(a) of the General Security Service Law, 2002, determines that the GSS is responsible for, among other things, guarding the security of the State and the democratic order of its institutions against subversive threats; by virtue of this responsibility, the GSS is required to thwart subversive activity by elements who wish to harm the nature of the State of Israel as a democratic Jewish State, even if they act by means of democratically provided tools, by virtue of the principle of ‘defensive democracy’ …”

    The “visionary documents” referred to by the GSS are four separate position papers drafted over the last year proposing alternative visions for relations between the Arab minority, the state, and the Jewish majority. These documents include: “The Future Vision” by the National Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel and Arab academics; “The Democratic Constitution” by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; “Ten Points” by Mossawa: The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel; and “The Haifa Declaration” by Arab academics and activists under the auspices of Mada al-Carmel: Arab Center for Applied Social Research. What these documents share is the call to transform Israel into “a State of all Citizens,” and the imperative of acknowledging the Arab minority as a “national minority” with collective rights. These ideas — which inform political and intellectual discourse among Palestinian citizens of Israel today — are most closely associated with former MK Bishara and the NDA, which developed and articulated them more than a decade ago.

    Following reports that the GSS intends to treat political activity in favor of a “State of all its Citizens” as subversion, Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel sent a letter to the Attorney General demanding a criminal investigation of the head of the GSS on the grounds of racist incitement. Israel’s leading civil rights organization, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), demanded that the Attorney General “order the GSS to immediately halt all activities aimed at thwarting legitimate political activity.” ACRI concluded: “The position of the GSS, according to which it is authorized to thwart activity that is not forbidden by law, in itself undermines the foundations of democracy, reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of democracy.”

    The Attorney General’s response to Adalah was to summon a so-called “constitutive paper” from the GSS, which defined its own authority thus: the GSS believes that it is within its charter to carry out surveillance operations, such as phone taps, on individuals deemed as “conducting subversive activity against the Jewish identity of the state,” even if their actions are not in violation of the law.

    The present GSS fabricated allegations against former MK Bishara are but the most extreme and recent attempt to thwart the legitimate political activity of the NDA and to delegitimize the democratically elected leadership of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

    The NDA calls upon the international community — academics, civil and human rights activists, diplomats and parliamentarians — to demand an immediate end to the criminal investigations against former MK Azmi Bishara and other “legal proceedings” aimed at delegitimizing the NDA’s legitimate political demand to transform the State of Israel from an ethnically exclusive state into a State of all its citizens. Political debates are to take place in the public sphere, not in interrogation rooms, prison cells, or execution chambers.

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