Israel's Assault on Gaza: A Transformational Moment? An Interview with Azmi Bishara
Azmi Bishara (b. 1956 in Nazareth), an Israeli Arab politician and academic, earned a doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University in Berlin in 1986 and for the next ten years was professor of philosophy at Birzeit University; he was also associated with the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem as a senior researcher. Politics, however, occupied him from an early age. In 1974, while still in high school, he established the first National Committee of Arab High School Students; two years later he was instrumental in founding the first National Arab Student Union, which he represented in the Committee for the Defense of Arab Lands when it declared Land Day in 1976.
Bishara has been a dominant force in Israeli Arab politics since 1995, when he was a principal founder of the National Democratic Assembly (Tajamu` in Arabic, Balad in Hebrew), a “democratic progressive national party for the Palestinian citizens of Israel.” He was elected to the Israeli Knesset for the first time in 1996—and in all subsequent elections through 2006—under the banner of the National Democratic Assembly, which soon became the spearhead of the national movement for the Palestinian community in Israel with its demands for cultural autonomy, recognition as a national minority, and equal rights. Within a few years, the slogan Bishara coined, “Israel as a state for all its citizens,” had become a mainstream demand and the rallying cry of Israel’s Palestinian community.
A self-described Arab nationalist, Bishara has long been a thorn in the side of the Israeli establishment. Attempts to rein him in began in earnest in November 2001, when, following a visit to Syria and speeches supporting the right of people under occupation to resist, the Knesset revoked his immunity as a member of the Knesset, opening the way for a criminal indictment against him. The Israeli High Court dismissed the indictment in April 2003 and Bishara’s parliamentary immunity was restored, but other actions followed. The National Democratic Assembly, was twice banned (in 2003 and 2006) from participating in parliamentary elections by Israel’s Central Elections Committee. (The ban was lifted both times by the High Court, and both times the party won three seats.) Following Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war, Bishara became the subject of a high-level security probe. Although he vigorously rejected allegations of “passing information to the enemy at time of war” as politically motivated fabrications, he resigned his Knesset seat and went into exile in April 2007. In spring 2009, a bill was introduced in the Knesset that, if passed, will allow the state to strip him of his citizenship.
Since leaving Israel, Bishara divides his time between Amman, Jordan, and Doha, Qatar. In addition to writing (he has published three books in recent years), he is a prominent commentator on regional and international affairs in the Arab media and satellite TV and holds the Gamal Abdel Nasser Chair for Arab Thought at the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut.
He was interviewed in English in Doha on 17 February 2009 by Mouin Rabbani, an Amman-based independent analyst and a senior fellow of the Institute for Palestine Studies.