The Jerusalem Post



(March 1) - The opening of Balad MK Azmi Bishara's trial yesterday had a predictable circus-like atmosphere. There was Bishara, figuratively wrapping himself in the flag of democracy and free-speech and enjoying unlimited attention from the local and international press. Even European observers were out in force to defend Bishara's rights in the face of what his lawyers claim is "Israel's Dreyfus case."

Though the international groups that are already sprouting up to transform Bishara into a latter-day Martin Luther King may not be interested, it is important to set a key fact straight. It is absurd to argue that Arab MKs in general or Bishara in particular is a victim of a "political" witch hunt. If anything, Israeli society is much more lenient toward vicious hate speech by Israeli Arab leaders than it would be if Jews used the same rhetoric.

Following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli society has understandably become sensitive on the issue of incitement - so much so that sometimes the charge of incitement itself becomes a way of shutting up political opponents. This hypersensitivity, however, has not extended to Israeli Arab MKs. who routinely use blood-curdling rhetoric against Israel leaders and institutions.

In an article in the current issue of the Middle East Quarterly called "Israel's Parliamentary Intifada," Julian Schvindlerman documents the scathing record of Israel Arab MKs. Bishara, for example, has called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "the murderer of Sabra and Shatila" and "worse than Hitler and Mussolini." MK Ahmed Tibi called Chief of General Staff Lt-Gen. Shaul Mofaz "a fascist" who is "responsible for murder" and labeled Sharon "a blood-sucking dictator." United Arab List MK Abdul Malik Dahamshe compared Sharon to Slobodan Milosovic and called for him to stand trial for war crimes. He wrote to the Nobel Peace Prize committee asking them to strip Shimon Peres of his prize, because he had joined the unity government.

Arab Democratic Party MK Taleb a-Sanaa has called on Druse and Beduin soldiers to stop serving in the IDF, which he calls a "machine of oppression" comparable to the Nazi police. Dahamshe, not to be outdone, called Israeli police "murderers" and MK Mahmoud Baraka (Hadash) called IDF anti-terror units an "execution squad." Keeping up with the times, Issam Mahul coined the terms "Israeli Taliban government" and "anthrax government." Even Labor MK Salah Tarif, who until recently was a cabinet minister, spoke on Palestinian television of the "fascist Right" in Israel, and visited Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in order to "wish him the best of health."

Arab MKs also seem to compete over who can show greater fealty to Syria. Last year, after three Syrian soldiers were killed when Israel destroyed a radar site in retaliation for an attack by Hizbullah, Dahamshe sent a condolence letter to the Syrian president. In the letter, Dahamshe condemned "fascist Israel's "abominable attack" and urged "Arab unification in order to bring an end to Israel's radical actions." Needless to say, Dahamshe has never offered condolences to the families of Jewish soldiers or civilians killed by Hizbullah.
No Jewish MK could get away with saying half the things that Arab MKs say without being pilloried within Israeli society, or any other democratic society for that matter. It is unimaginable, for example, that an elected Arab-American leader would show open enthusiasm for the struggle of the Taliban or Osama bin Laden.

Azmi Bishara's indictment states that in two speeches, including one in Damascus attended by the leader of Hizbullah, he gave "praise, sympathy, and encouragement for violent actions - [and called for] support and aid to a terrorist organization." Bishara, for his part, does not dispute that he stood in front of a gathering of a who's who of Israel's enemies - including Hamas, Hizbullah, and an Iranian vice president - in Damascus, urged them to "unite against the warmongering Sharon government" and praised the "heroism of the Islamic struggle." Bishara's claim is that these words do not constitute incitement to violence.

This being Israel, Bishara will enjoy a fair trial, rather than the swift execution that would occur if he had expressed opposition in the realms of the tyrants and terrorists that enamor him so. He could well be acquitted, since he did not say "kill the Jews" in so many words. Yet one does not need a trial to confirm what Bishara says of himself: "I am not an Israeli patriot, I am a Palestinian patriot... I cannot call Syria an enemy country, even if they crucify me."

This is indeed the problem and the issue: Unlike some Israeli Arab mayors, who sincerely and unabashedly reject violent irredentism, most Israeli Arab MKs do not even bother with the pretense of loyalty to the state. As Meretz MK Amnon Rubinstein has pointed out, minorities in other democratic countries take the opposite approach: Their struggle for civil rights is an expression of their patriotism. This is understandable, Rubinstein argues, since "you cannot expect equal rights from a state whose legitimate right to exist you deny."

Azmi Bishara claims that his trial represents a failure of Israeli democracy. In truth it is a disturbing reminder of how thoroughly Israeli Arab MKs have abused their democratic freedoms, at the expense of the well-being of the community they claim to represent.