In votes that may have landmark consequences for the future of Israeli democracy, the Knesset moved Wednesday toward curbing the statements of firebrand Arab lawmakers - a step that could also boomerang, making popular martyrs of the very politicians the parliament aimed to muzzle.
For the first time in the country's history, the house voted to strip a Knesset member of his parliamentary immunity in order to allow him to stand trial for public utterances deemed politically inflammatory.
In a separate, but not-unrelated action, the parliament passed a preliminary version of a bill that would in future bar from Knesset candidacy any person deemed to have made statements supporting terrorism or Israel's enemies.
At the core of Wednesday's legislative action were declarations made in June by MK Azmi Bishara (Balad-National Democratic Alliance), who is likely to be charged with incitement against Israel for having urged Arabs to take "the path of resistance" in supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
At the time, Bishara told a gathering of Arab leaders - among them, to Israeli ire, militant Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah - that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was trying to drag the Middle East into war.
A Christian from the northern Israel city of Nazareth, Bishara also faces a separate trial over having arranged for Israeli Arabs to visit Syria, an offense under Israeli law as Damascus is still in a state of formal war with Jerusalem.
Labor MK Yossi Katz was among a number of legislators who speculated that the decision to lift Bishara's immunity would not survive the Supreme Court challenge, which a number of Arab MKs have vowed to mount.
Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit of the Likud had no doubts. "We must set a limit to the extent that a Knesset member can hide behind his immunity and, at the same time, act against the state of Israel. Is it conceivable that a member of Israel's parliament... should speak before Hezbollah, urge continuation of the war against Israel by Israel's enemies - and then collect a salary from this same Knesset?"
Sheetrit told Israel Radio after the parliamentary votes that the "limits of free speech and the limits of immunity end the moment that a Knesset member acts against the state of Israel, and that is what Bishara did."
If Israeli rightists hoped to quell militancy or support for Bishara among Israeli Arabs, however, the legislative action might turn out to have quite opposite effects, turning Bishara into a hero even among Arabs whose support for him had been lukewarm at best.
"If not a saint, he may now turn into a much-admired figure," said Ha'aretz commentator Ori Nir. "You already see that sworn political rivals of Bishara are mobilizing themselves on his behalf."
Nir said that Bishara's current support is a complex matter. "He has his own public, from his own party, and there is also a wider circle of people who do not really support his political line, who very much esteem his leadership and intellectual abilities. He is seen by many not only as a politician, but also as a thinker, and an intellectual trailblazer where the struggles and sentiments and feelings of Israeli Arabs are concerned."
In the end, the Knesset votes may "boomerang" on its sponsors, Nir concluded. "The most profound political consequence, especially if this process of delegitimizing Bishara and his movement continues, is a strengthening of those currents in the Israeli Arab community that operate outside Israel's democratic process, such as the Sons of the Village and the militant northern wing of the Islamic Movement, which oppose participation in Knesset elections.
"The more you portray the Knesset as a place in which Arabs have no influence, or have no ability to stand as equals, you bolster those who argue that there's no point in playing by the rules of Israeli democracy," Nir commented.
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