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Knesset Member Azmi Bishara (Balad) is not Martin Luther King. He is not a leader who pursues peace and struggles only for the human rights of the members of the oppressed minority to which he belongs, but rather a national leader who aspires to national achievements through a national struggle. Bishara's liberal rhetoric is always interesting and challenging, but in many cases it is in the service of his nationalist-Arab struggle, which is in itself legitimate.

In a certain sense, Bishara is a current incarnation of Hassenin Heikal: an intellectual of the new Pan-Arabism, a fluent and brilliant spokesman for the greater Arab nation. However, in another sense, he is like the leaders of the German minority in Sudetenland in the 1930s and like the leaders of the Albanian minority in Macedonia in 2001. Bishara's aim is to make use of concepts of human rights and minority rights in order to defeat a rival national movement.

In one respect - and this is of utmost importance - the operational pattern of charismatic MK from Nazareth differs significantly from Konrad Honlein, the leader of the Sudeten German; from Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Serbs in Bosnia; and from Menduh Taci, the leader of the Albanians in Macedonia: Bishara does not preach violence and he does not use it.

In this respect, he scrupulously observes the rules of the civil game. And as long as he observes these rules, he is not a criminal. A sworn enemy of Zionism? Definitely. A bitter enemy of the Jewish state? Certainly. But not a criminal. Azmi Bishara is not an illegitimate political figure.

The good people at the State Prosecutor's Office and the Attorney General's Office believe otherwise. Reading the harsh things that Bishara said at a political rally in Umm al-Fahm in July, 2000, and the even harsher things he said at a memorial ceremony for the late president of Syria in June, 2001, it seemed to them that they were seeing a crossing of the criminal boundary. Bishara's support for the Hezbollah at these two public events was, for them, "public praise in support acts of violence ... public praise and support for a terrorist organization ... and identification with a terrorist organization."

Therefore they now want to put the head of the Balad movement on trial and are asking the Knesset to revoke his immunity. The Knesset is slated to deliberate their request today.

In the narrow sense, the request by the State Prosecutor's Office is justified: The things Bishara said are grave. Someone who serves in the Israeli parliament cannot speak with demonstrative enthusiasm about the humiliation of Israel by its enemies. Someone who has sworn loyalty to the state of Israel and its laws cannot hint that Hezbollah-style opposition is a recommended course of action.

However, grave as they may be, Bishara's statements contain no direct and explicit preaching of the use of violence. They contain no fundamental and unambiguous transgression of the law. First and foremost, this is because for as long as Israel was an occupying force in Lebanon, and as long as the Hezbollah was fighting the Israeli occupier and focused its struggle on fighting Israeli military forces, it was not a terror organization in the full sense of the word. The sworn enemy of Zionism? Definitely. A bitter enemy of the Jewish state? Certainly. But not a terror organization.

Since this is the case, the expression of support for the Hezbollah that fought the Israeli occupation of Lebanon was not illegal. It was publicly unforgivable, but it did not place Bishara clearly and absolutely beyond the limits of the criminal red line.

In the deeper sense, then, the request by the State Prosecutor's Office is wrong. The challenge of Bishara should be dealt with not in the criminal-legal arena but rather in the public-conceptual arena. Dealing with Bishara should take place in instances where his arguments are clearly immoral, and not in instances where they do have some basis.

With Bishara, it is necessary to argue about the right of the Jewish people to self-definition and not about the right to occupy territories of neighboring states. And overall, it is necessary to argue with Bishara and not fire indictments at him. Turning the dialogue with him into a legal issue is morally incorrect and politically dangerous. If the state of Israel chooses to wage a war against one of the most fascinating intellectuals in the Middle East over the question of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Hezbollah activities in southern Lebanon, it will be defeated. With its own hands it will transform Bishara into what he is not - an Arab Martin Luther King. If, God forbid, Bishara is sent to prison, the result will be even worse - Bishara will become a Nelson Mandela.

Today, in the Knesset House Committee, Azmi Bishara will pose a real challenge to the Jewish-democratic state that he so despises. Everyone to whom this state is dear must hope that it will pass the test. A Jewish-democratic Israel is an Israel that knows how to find inside itself a worthy place also for those who stand up against it from within.