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"What Do You Want the Palestinians to Do?"
Azmi Bishara, Israel
July 24, 2002
July 24óOne of the most respected voices in Palestinian politics is neither a member of the Yasir Arafatís Palestinian Authority nor of the Islamist party Hamas, but of the Israeli Knesset. Azmi Bishara is a Christian Arab activist and Israeli citizen from Nazareth whose unflinching criticism of Israelís government has made him a hero to Arabs on both sides of the Green Line and, thanks to satellite television, throughout much of the Muslim world.
His point of view has brought down the wrath of the Israeli government: In May his parliamentary immunity was lifted, and he is due in court in September to answer to charges of sedition and "incitement to violence." Yet Bisharaís greatest talent is at operating within the democratic frameworkóa skill few other Palestinians have been able to acquire, much less to master. On a recent visit to Paris, Bishara sat down with NEWSWEEKís Christopher Dickey to talk about the future of Israel, of Palestine, of Yasir Arafat and democracy in the Middle East.
Newsweek: Youíre on trial for sedition in Israel. I thought you couldnít travel abroad.
Azmi Bishara: My [parliamentary] immunity was revoked at the beginning of the trial, thatís all. I still have my passport, and I can travel with it. Of course, there are restricted areas where I cannot go: for instance, Gaza. I havenít been there for the last two years. When they close Ramallah, I cannot enter there. Just like any other citizen.
You are on trial for a speech you made in Syria praising Hizbullah. Is that right?
One speech in Israel and one in Syria. I spoke about the right to resist occupation, and this was considered sympathetic to terrorism. I said that war is not an option. It should not be. And accepting the dictates of Israel is not an option for the Palestinian people and that their only option is the third option, which I call the resistance option. This was considered to be [advocating] terrorism, and I refuted that totally. This is not true at all. This means that people have the right to struggle against occupation. I was always against targeting civilians.
But the right to resist occupationóyou know the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, they donít have the right to vote in the Knesset. They donít have a democratic channel to express self-determination. Some people talk as if the Palestinians have two or three different alternatives to express their self-determination and they choose violence. This is nonsense. Occupation is violent. Occupation deprives the Palestinian people not only of self-determination, but the elementary right to plan their lives every day, the most banal details. And the occupation does not give them the right to express their protest against that democratically, for example by voting for a parliament. So what do you want the Palestinians to do?
U.S. President George W. Bush is saying he wants more democracy in Palestinian-controlled territory. That itís the key to everything. And he says that canít happen as long as Yasir Arafat runs the Palestinian Authority.
Most of the presidents and kings of the Middle East are not democratic but are close friends, it seems, of George Bush. And he speaks about them with sympathy without their being democratic. George Bush did not ask the independent states who are friends of the United States for democracy. And heís asking Palestiniansóeven before independenceóto build a democracy? And these Arab governments to help? This is totally absurd. And the Palestinians are not taking George Bush seriously, you know.
So the Israelis have been better teachers of democracy?
You know, the most powerful democrats in India used to live in London. The most democratic voices of Algeria used to live in Paris. The intellectuals of the Third World usually lived in the colonial countries. This was always the case. Look, there is a margin for freedom of speech because there is a democracy in Israel. But this democracy was built on the ruins of my people, my state. All that they give us instead of the land is the right of speech. Instead of my land [they] give me the possibility to talk. And even there [they] are manufacturing laws to limit it. Israel is a democracy, but itís a Jewish democracy, thatís how it defines itself. They keep reminding us, "in this democracy you are really a guest." Itís colonial, and we are a colonized people.
Yet Palestinians have had more experience with democracy, for better or worse, than any other Arab people just because of proximity to Israel and because there are about 1 million Palestinian-Israeli citizens and because there are Palestinian members of the Knesset. Are there lessons youíve learned that you can usefully transfer to the occupied territories?
There are many Arab citizens of the U.S. and of Britain whose experience with democracy is much friendlier than ours. The Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza have had only the dark side of the Israeli democracy. Do people under colonialism learn democracy from colonialism? Itís an interesting question. I think until now experience has provided us with a negative answer.
There is a [perceived] fusion between democratic ideas and so-called Western values and so-called colonialism that bring about the altogether anti-Western, anticolonial and antidemocratic reaction that is very, very, very dangerous. I do not think colonialism, especially the Israeli colonialism, can bring about democracy. Iíll tell you why. Certain colonialisms in the past were very clear about their transitional character. They thought they had a civilizing mission. But settler colonialism is not simply here to stay, itís here to stay instead of you. This is the kind of Israeli colonialism faced by Palestinians. Now you cannot learn any kind of democracy from that.
Yet your own example is strong. Youíre known as a democratic Arab politician throughout the Arab world.
You see an Arab member of the Knesset challenging [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon face to face. Well this is tantalizing, and not only for Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza. With TV, now the whole Arab world sees us. And that is something. They think we are heroic. We are not. Itís the system that enables us to do that. But the Arab world does look at it, you know, sometimes, with a certain kind of admiration. They ask, "How do you shout and say those things and challenge the Israeli minister, but you are not shot and nobody puts you in jail, at least not directly?" This, I can say, is having an effect. When I ran for [Israeli] prime minister [in 1999] and built a whole campaign to get across my opinions, even though everybody knew I would lose, this was so attractive to Arab intellectuals that I have not stopped getting responses from Arabs all around the Arab world.
Donít you think Arabs want that in the occupied territories?
What is democracy? The rule of the people. First of all you have to have the rule, then you can have the rule of the majority. Sovereignty is a precondition for democracy. We have limited authority, and in that limited setting we already have had more pluralism than anywhere else in the Arab world. We have seven legal parties. They have their press, their newspapers. You have more radio stations than other Arab countries. And this is all in an authority which had very limited sovereignty. So this is not the real problem. George Bush is doing a very, very bad service to democracy by instrumentalizing it. Everybody knows he is cynical about it.
Arenít you instrumentalizing democracy against the state of Israel?
Very much so. Yes. But do I believe in the values of democracy? I think I do. I believe in equality. I believe in freedom of the speech. I believe in the human beingóin his life, his dignity, his right to pursue happiness. And when I say all these things and I say I want citizenship to be the criterion for getting those rights in Israel, and I want Israel to be the state of its citizens, I am considered as seditious. This is considered in Israel "incitement."
Are you are challenging the basic notion of a democratic Jewish state? Would you accept a Jewish state living alongside a Palestinian state?
I support justice. If the two-state solution brings justice, Iím for it. If the majority of the Palestinians and the majority of the Israelis want two states, and if the two-state solution goes along with the borders of the 4th of June , with Jerusalem as the capital, why not?
Basically whatís your vision of peace, real peace?
A two-state solution. Now. The Palestinian state is undermined daily. And by many things: by building settlements, by trying to cut its borders, measures to empty sovereignty of any real content. This will lead nowhere.
Given the confrontation of extremes that dominates the Middle East, do you sometimes feel like a voice from the past with all this talk of democracy and reform?
I do not think Iím a voice of the past. I think that my voice, as well as that of many other Muslims and Christians and Jews, is getting to be the mainstream. No people can impose liberal democracy tomorrow, but people who believe in a modern and rational way to organize social life, a rational way of ruling, and in gradual reforms and in wanting to see a modern state and a modern Arab projectóI believe that we are now mainstream. Our problem is that we are not organized all over the Arab world.
Perhaps that brings us back to Yasir Arafat. Arafat is not a democrat and is widely viewed as incredibly corrupt. Behind the scenes there are a lot of Arabs who think it would be great if Arafat would be "the flag," the symbolic president, and they could get on building the kind of reforms youíre talking about.
The people around Yasir Arafat that George Bush and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and others say can bring this reform about, theyíre part of the system of Yasir Arafat, and they will not be better than him. The U.S. is posing the wrong question when it talks about these people building democracy. I donít think [the Americans] even mean it. They want a uniformed security apparatus. Thatís all they want. All the rest, I think is nonsense.
But not nonsense for you.
OK. Arafat is not a democrat. But how about the [Palestinian] Legislative Council? Why canít it be convened? The Legislative Council is elected. You canít say itís corrupt because it hasnít had real power, but officially it does. Why is all the attention paid to people "behind the scenes"? Let the Legislative Council be convened, which has already been elected in all areas. You canít get a better, a more representative institution. Give the Legislative Council power. Why are we looking for persons [to build the future]? Why not institutions? Why does everybody keep asking "who" comes after Arafat? Why is it important who? Why not speak about "what": institutions that can bring about a better system, better reforms?
Thatís what I think should be done. But itís not done because the Legislative Council canít be convened because the movements of its members are restricted in Gaza to Gaza, in Ramallah to Ramallah, in Hebron to Hebron. They are insulted at the checkpoints like any other citizens. Instead of looking around Arafat and his security apparatus for leadership, you should look for alternatives. And I would agree with the U.S. if it supported the Legislative Council, which usually is very critical of Arafat. But looking for alternatives to Yasir Arafat in the security apparatusócan I take that seriously? Not as a democrat. No.
In November 2000, the Israeli Knesset lifted Azmi Bisharaís parliamentary immunity from prosecution, which opened the way for his criminal indictment on charges that he had violated the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (1948) and Regulation 5 of the Emergency Regulations (Exiting the Country; 1948). He will answer to these charges in court in September 2002.
A Newsweek Web Exclusive, July 24, 2002. © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.