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Former Arab-Israeli Knesset MP Azmi Bishara Speaks from Abu Dhabi about Treason Charges

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Israeli police have accused former Arab Knesset lawmaker of treason and espionage. The charges reportedly center around Bishara’s alleged contacts with members of Hezbollah during Israel’s attack on Lebanon last year. There are reports Bishara’s conversations were wiretapped. Bishara resigned his position in the parliament and left Israel last month. Israeli police say they’ll arrest him if he returns. We speak to Bishara from Abu Dhabi. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and Israel’s most well-known Arab member of parliament, Azmi Bishara is no stranger to clashes with the Israeli government. Five years ago, Bishara was put on trial for supporting terrorism for comments he made in public speeches about the Lebanese group Hezbollah. One year later, Israel’s election commission barred him from running for parliament, but later had the decision overturned.

Today, Azmi Bishara is facing his most serious challenge to date. Israeli police have accused him of treason and espionage. The charges reportedly center around Bishara’s alleged contacts with members of Hezbollah during Israel’s attacks on Lebanon last year. There are reports Bishara’s conversations were wiretapped. Bishara resigned his position in the parliament and left Israel last month. Israeli police say they’ll arrest him if he returns. Bishara’s resignation takes away his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

He explained his decision to flee at a news conference last week in Cairo.

AZMI BISHARA: I decided not to wait and not to hide behind the immunity and to do it myself according to my rules and not to wait until they do it. So in order not to create an impression that I am hiding behind my membership in the Knesset or my immunity, etc., I resigned myself. And I also want to give an opportunity to my party to work in the parliament with three members, not only with two.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former Arab member of the Israeli parliament, Azmi Bishara, speaking last week in Cairo. Today, he joins us from Abu Dhabi.

Can you talk, Azmi Bishara, about why you have left Israel, why you resigned from the Knesset?

AZMI BISHARA: Well, both decisions have nothing to do actually with the charges. I resigned from the Knesset because I wanted to — like a year ago, I felt already exhausted from parliamentary work — 11 years. This was a very, very intensive year, and I wanted to give more time for my philosophy and literature writing on my books and also for political work, but not in the parliament. It’s a very exhausting place to be. And I think my work was very intensive and very creative. And the tools are there; everybody can use them. I think parties should change their MKs or MPs every two or three times. I did that. But I delayed, actually, the resignation, because of the charges, for a month or two after I knew that they started an investigation.

And I left the country to attend two or three conferences abroad, including an Al Jazeera commenting the Arab Summit. And then I heard the kind of campaign which is run against me in the Israeli press and the kind of plans, like hearing the Israeli intelligence commander — previous intelligence commander saying on the TV that we have decided to finish the phenomena of Azmi Bishara and all these things, and the kind of, you know, totalitarian campaign without any dissent in the Israeli press, orchestrated like the first weeks of wars, when Israelis engage in wars, in the beginning of wars. So I thought I should slow down a little bit and think.

They changed the rules again totally. Now they are not accusing me of supporting the state of the citizens against the Zionist character of the state, or they’re not accusing me of saying things. They’re accusing me of doing things. It is totally different. It’s actually — they’re accusing me of security crimes that, according to the Israeli law, it’s very hard to clear yourself from, because it’s their arena. They can bring the evidence they want from unknown intelligence sources. They can actually impose new things that you did not do and interpret your relationships. For example, they can declare any friend you have or any journalist you talk to in Lebanon or in Jordan or in Egypt as a foreign agent. And this is so, according to Israeli law. Security courts are very different from civil courts, although they are civil courts formally. But the rules of the game are totally different in there, because of the kind of evidence that convinces a court. So I thought it’s very mean, actually, the fact that instead of facing my political and ideological work, that they referred to security tools with which it’s very, very hard to compete. It’s very hard to challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: Azmi Bishara, we’re going to break for a moment, and then we’re going to come back to you. We’ll also be joined by your aide when you were a Knesset member, Yael Lerer, an Israeli publisher. She’s here in New York. Azmi Bishara is joining us from Abu Dhabi.


AMY GOODMAN: Right now, we are talking to Azmi Bishara, former member of the Israeli Knesset, resigned his post last month after Israeli officials accused him of treason and espionage. He is speaking to us now from Abu Dhabi. They say they’ll arrest him if he comes back into Israel. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez. This is Democracy Now! Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Azmi Bishara, you, in a recent op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, compared your situation to the Dreyfus Affair of a French Jew who was accused of treason. Could you explain why you made that comparison?

AZMI BISHARA: Well, it’s actually [inaudible], because it’s closer to the, let me say, Israeli mythology to understand, or even Jewish mythology, because at times of defeat, France looked to a scapegoat to blame, and the easiest thing to blame was somebody from the minority, and it was the easiest thing to make a diversion of national frustration against the government because of a defeat in a war against Germany. They picked up an officer — of course, I’m not an officer, and I’m not trying to be Israeli, like Dreyfus was trying to be loyal French. I am a Palestinian, that I consider myself a native that is — whose identity is Arab-Palestinian.

But the similarity is in the timing and the fact that the media unites in such an orchestrated campaign against a scapegoat. There is a very clear national frustration in Israel. Their political program of disengagement in the West Bank and Gaza failed. Their military against Hezbollah actually failed. And the whole morale, the whole mood of the country is very low and bitter. And so, let me say, the public opinion industry was to divert the attention towards somebody to blame. That’s why I used it.

But actually the Israeli security started working against my case a few years ago — against me a few years ago, because they could not cope with the fact that there is an Arab Palestinian who is trying to take away the democratic liberal discourse from their hand and use it against them. They’re not used to this fact, that there is an Arab national, Palestinian national, who is using a democratic discourse of citizenship and liberalism, etc. They started working a few years ago before the timing of the war. I referred actually to the media and politicians’ timing, which has to do with their need to divert attention into my direction.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your decision to leave the country, could you tell us whether you’re intending to return to Israel and face these charges, or will you plan to stay in exile outside the country?

AZMI BISHARA: Well, we’re consulting things really. Usually people who are accused of these things in the third world and leaders of national movements in the Third World do not capitulate this way. They do not give themselves to be charged. The problem is the process that they want to conduct in Israel. They want to conduct a process in which people in the United States or Europe, liberals and democrats, can see that, you know, there are no Arab democrats who are for citizenship and democracy; actually, all of them are collaborators who give information, actually inform us of terrorist movements, especially Islamist, etc.; don’t believe an Arab if he comes and says he’s a democrat or he’s a secular or he’s for equality, etc. And they have their evidence, which is their interpretation of all kinds of personal relationships and friendships that they will have me justifying them there like a small suspect, not like a leader or intellectual, etc.

This kind of arena that they will create, we think — me and my lawyers and everybody there thinks that it won’t be, it can’t play to our benefit, because it’s their arena and their discourse, and I will have to play from within their discourse. Now, in the past I’ve played from within the democratic liberal discourse, but to play from within the security discourse, it’s very, very hard for a Palestinian inside Israel.

The other message they want to send is to actually intimidate the Arabs in Israel by these charges and by the result of the court, that this way leads to this result. So actually what we wanted to avoid is this kind of the rules of the game. Usually we are not dragged to the rules of the game that they set, and we try ours. So what we are doing now is staying outside and thinking what to do until the media campaign calms down, winds down, and then we can think what we will do and how and what are the terms of my return.

Of course, exile is not an option for me at all. I usually — I lived inside Israel in the hardest conditions. I did not leave the country. I already stood in two courts and with success. But this time I know very well. I think the Israelis themselves know, and they say it actually, that this time when they go to this corner, to this arena of security charges, it’s very hard for them to lose it. They prepare the files this way with intelligence secret reports that you cannot challenge. You cannot challenge their sources of information. I’m very sorry that they went this far, because they lost the political and ideological campaign. They themselves have said some months ago that my political ideas are so hegemolian now in the Arab political street and they spread so much that they can’t fight them except by using the Shabak, which is the Israeli secret police.

AMY GOODMAN: Azmi Bishara, we’re joined by Yael Lerer, your former aide. There was an evening in solidarity with you last night at New York University. Yael Lerer is an Israeli publisher. Your response to the Israeli charges, you, an Israeli Jewish citizen?

YAEL LERER: I mean, I think Azmi Bishara was very accurate when he was pointing on the fact that when it’s security charges, all the game is completely different. And we know, we are familiar with these cases. When somebody, when the General Security Service decides to put someone on trial, nothing will help this person, because it’s very easy to fabricate cases. Most, I think, of the security cases in Israel are fabricated, and people just sit in the court, and always when there is a security accusation, you are arrested. I mean, if Azmi Bishara was not a member of the Knesset, he was arrested before the investigation had started. And this is very important. And I think to be now away for a while, it’s a very right decision. Like Azmi pointed out, I think, myself, that his work in the Knesset was very important. He was showing us what is citizenship about. I think it was very important lesson for all the citizens of Israel, Jewish and Arab alike. But when the government is so strong against him, I think the right thing now is to be away. I just want to point a small thing —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Yael Lerer, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Israeli publisher, former aide to Azmi Bishara. Last night, an evening of solidarity with Dr. Azmi Bishara took place at New York University. Azmi Bishara, thank you for joining us. We’ll certainly continue to follow this case. Azmi Bishara, the former member of the Israeli Knesset, joining us from Abu Dhabi. Israel says if he returns, they will arrest him.

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