'What Do You Want the Palestinians to Do?'
Arab-Israeli politician Azmi Bishara discusses Yasir Arafat's future
and the prospects for Mideast peace
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
July 24 - One of the most respected voices in Palestinian politics is neither a member of the Yasir Arafat's 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 Israel's 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 Bishara's greatest talent is at
operating within the democratic framework-a skill few other
Palestinians have been able to acquire, much less to master. On a
recent visit to Paris, Bishara sat down with NEWSWEEK's Christopher
Dickey to talk about the future of Israel, of Palestine, of Yasir
Arafat and democracy in the Middle East.
NEWSWEEK: You're on trial for sedition in Israel. I thought
you couldn't travel abroad.
Azmi Bishara: My [parliamentary] immunity was revoked at the
beginning of the trial, that's 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 haven't been there for the last two
years. When they close Ramallah, I cannot enter there. Just like any
NW: You are on trial for a speech you made in Syria praising
Hizbullah. Is that right?
AB: 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 occupation-you know the Palestinians
in the West Bank, Gaza, they don't have the right to vote in the
Knesset. They don't 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?
NW: U.S. President George W. Bush is saying he wants more
democracy in Palestinian-controlled territory. That it's the key to
everything. And he says that can't happen as long as Yasir Arafat
runs the Palestinian Authority.
AB: 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 he's asking Palestinians-even before
independence-to build a democracy? And these Arab governments to
help? This is totally absurd. And the Palestinians are not taking
George Bush seriously, you know.
NW: So the Israelis have been better teachers of democracy?
AB: 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
it's a Jewish democracy, that's how it defines itself. They keep
reminding us, "in this democracy you are really a guest." It's
colonial, and we are a colonized people.
NW: 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 you've learned that you can
usefully transfer to the occupied territories?
AB: 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? It's 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. I'll
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, it's
here to stay instead of you. This is the kind of Israeli colonialism
faced by Palestinians. Now you cannot learn any kind of democracy
NW: Yet your own example is strong. You're known as a
democratic Arab politician throughout the Arab world.
AB: 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. It's 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.
NW: Don't you think Arabs want that in the occupied territories?
AB: 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.
NW: Aren't you instrumentalizing democracy against the state of Israel?
AB: 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 being-in 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."
NW: Are you are challenging the basic notion of a democratic
Jewish state? Would you accept a Jewish state living alongside a
AB: I support justice. If the two-state solution brings
justice, I'm 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?
NW: Basically what's your vision of peace, real peace?
AB: 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.
NW: 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?
AB: I do not think I'm 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
project-I believe that we are now mainstream. Our problem is that we
are not organized all over the Arab world.
NW: 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 you're talking about.
AB: The people around Yasir Arafat that George Bush and
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and others say can bring this reform
about, they're 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 don't think [the
Americans] even mean it. They want a uniformed security apparatus.
That's all they want. All the rest, I think is nonsense.
NW: But not nonsense for you.
AB: OK. Arafat is not a democrat. But how about the
[Palestinian] Legislative Council? Why can't it be convened? The
Legislative Council is elected. You can't say it's corrupt because it
hasn't 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
can't 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,
That's what I think should be done. But it's not done because
the Legislative Council can't 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 apparatus-can I take
that seriously? Not as a democrat. No.
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.