Equal Rights for Arabs in Jewish State: A Goal Unrealizable

An Interview with Azmi Bishara

by Laurie King-Irani | published December 14, 1999

Azmi Bishara, a Nazareth-based Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, is recognized as one of the freshest voices speaking on behalf of the Palestinian people and their rights. A Ph.D. in philosophy, Bishara has effectively used his parliamentary position to articulate Palestinian national aspirations, as well as to promote equal rights and cultural autonomy for those in Israel. In pursuit of this goal, Bishara has highlighted concepts long forgotten in Israel and the region, such as "a state of all its citizens," individual and group rights, and continues to speak of an Arab/Palestinian national identity grounded in a positive collective memory, unique experience and history, which won him the title of a political phenomenon in the Israeli media. Bishara refutes Israeli political discourse by consciously employing double negatives to stand the common views of Palestinian identity on their heads. "We are not the product of Israel's refusal to accept us and thus we do not exist as Arabs only because Israel rejects us," he said. Bishara, a graduate of Humboldt University (1985) in formerly East Berlin, heads the National Democratic Assembly (NDA) with two Knesset seats. We interviewed Azmi on October 25 during a visit in Washington. This is the first part of the interview; the second part will appear here at a later date.

You are a Palestinian Arab and a member of the Israeli Knesset. How do you reconcile the two? Are there any contradictions, and if so, have you resolved them?

Membership in the Knesset as an Arab Palestinian contains many contradictions that are not exclusive to membership in the Knesset. Probably the Knesset sharpens these contradictions. Just being an Arab citizen of Israel is in itself a contradiction. If you are in academia, the government, the police force, or whatever, you face contradictions. If you want to avoid contradictions, you must leave the country; this is the only choice.

In the Knesset, the contradictions become more intense because they are political. Any attempt to reconcile them is futile. Rather, you should sharpen and clarify them, not try to blur or hide them. Otherwise you foster a perverse political personality that acts as if it is half Arab and half Israeli; in other words, you will become a marginal figure on the margins of both societies. I personally don't think you should reconcile these contradictions. You should be conscious of them and try to turn them into a momentum of development, into energy for progress, rather than into a destructive and perverting force.

How do you do that?

The NDA emphasizes equally and at the same time our national identity as Arab Palestinians and our demands for equal citizenship as Israeli citizens. The dynamic interplay between the two generates new ideas. It is not a coincidence that our thinking articulated the idea of a state for all its citizens, meaning all citizens will have equal rights and also cultural autonomy for the Arabs in Israel. Many people say, 'you have to be either or, you cannot be both.' On the contrary, we cannot sustain our national identity unless we demand equality in Israel. Otherwise, our national identity becomes merely a product of negating forces, that is to say, a negative national identity, or a product of Israel's refusal to accept us. So, if your national identity is created through inequality only, it becomes shaky and negative. We must build our national identity on the positive forces inherent in it. We do not exist as Arabs only because Israel rejects us.

Moreover, individual equality in Israel cannot be achieved without having group rights. It is impossible for the Arabs in Israel to fuse with Jewish Israelis into a single nation as happened in France or the US, because this invalidates the essence of Israel's structure. For better or worse, Israel already contains two nationalities and it is too late to try to integrate them into one nation. Just as the American Declaration of Independence states, we believe that the individual has the right to enjoy "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and to be equal as a human being. We as democrats, not only as Arabs, believe in that. So we do want equality for the individual, although it is difficult for Arabs to receive those rights as individuals. We therefore emphasize both individual and group rights.

In Israel, the nationalistic rhetoric emphasizes the obligations that Arabs must assume if they are to be granted equality. They say, for instance, "if you want full rights, you have to serve in the army." Clearly, contradictions arise, as service in the army pits Arabs against their own history, sense of identity, collective memory and relationship with Israel. We want to separate duties from rights, because we believe that rights should not be deduced from duties. Rights should be a part of being a citizen.

What do you mean by these contradictions? Can you give us any examples?

Two examples from my experience in the Knesset illustrate the differences between me and the other Arab members of the Knesset:

During the elections we tried to belong neither to Barak nor to Natanyahu's camps. However, in order to challenge the political and ideological system, convey our ideas, implant pride in Arab youth and raise the issue of the Arab minority in Israel, we spoke of our differences with both Barak and Netanyahu, unlike the other Arab parties who joined the Barak camp. Those parties, Communists and Islamists, enthusiastically campaigned for Barak, and joined his campaign organizationally, hoping to become part of the government. After the elections we learned that they expected to join the coalition. "Just a moment," we said, "if you join the coalition, you are embracing Barak's politics." We do want equality in Israel, but in this case equality means being in the opposition, not becoming marginalized in a coalition. It means being a party to building new settlements in the territories and Jerusalem, to waging war against Lebanon, etc. While joining may present an image of being in the government, it means perverting basic political principles.

In a second example, after the elections, I was the only one, out of thirteen Arab members of the Knesset, who was against joining the Committee for Security Affairs, because it poses unbearable contradictions on my sense of Arab Palestinian identity. The committee's overall concern is Israeli security, it decides, for example, on the best suitable weapons for Israel. By joining it, I would be involved in deceit and lying to my constituents. I could not face this. To be a full Israeli, must you be a zero Arab? My Arab colleagues in the Knesset were unable to understand why I, who argued for a state of all its citizens, would refuse to join the Security Committee. They could not see that we were being forced to collaborate in consolidating the state only.

Arab and Palestinian leaders have placed high hopes in Barak and the Labor Party. It has now been five months since Barak became prime minister. How do you assess his handling of relations with the Arabs and the Palestinians in particular?

We had no illusions about Barak. The difference between Barak and Netanyahu is that as a member of the military establishment, Barak may be more pragmatic than Likud's Netanyahu. The military establishment shows greater strategic awareness and understanding for America's needs in the region and is more open to American considerations than Likud's settlers and religious coalitions. But on those issues requiring an Israeli national consensus, including an independent state, Jerusalem as its capital, settlements, refugees and borders, we believe there is no difference. The real reason for Barak's victory is that he attracted a considerable portion of secular right-wing Jews away from Netanyahu.

More important, on the question of the final status issues, there is no difference between Barak and Netanyahu. Likud could at anytime join Barak regarding the Palestinian issues and did in fact consider doing so upon Barak's suggestion. This plan did not succeed only because of the crisis within Likud's leadership, who believed that their chances for reconciliation are better in the opposition than as a coalition partner. But Barak's government includes MAFDAL (National Religious Party), a party that stands politically and ideologically to the right of Likud. The difference between it and Likud is their policy toward the transitional period... Netanyahu always preferred direct negotiations on the final status, omitting a transitional period altogether. Barak shares this view, but is more committed to Oslo, to the US, to Europe and to others who want Oslo to succeed. He is also ready to partially implement the transitional period. Barak's vision is important for the Palestinians, because the Palestinian authority that governs a segment of the Palestinian society derives its authority from details, which keep the talks going. It naturally prefers Barak to Netanyahu. This distinction does not justify turning ourselves over to Barak's camp.

As for negotiations with Syria, where differences exist, too, I cannot judge very well. We know that Netanyahu and Sharon were ready for considerable withdrawal from the Golan, but not to the June 4, 1967 borders as Syria and UN resolutions call for. Through his aides, Barak made it clear that he is ready to withdraw to the 1923 international line, which leaves a part of the 1967 occupied area in Israel's hands. Syria does not and will not accept this.

Filed under: