What Went Wrong With Azmi Bishara?

Whether or not he decides to return to Israel, Azmi Bishara has declared himself to be an exiled political leader.

Whether or not he decides to return to Israel, Azmi Bishara has declared himself to be an exiled political leader. Even his political rivals admit that he is a man to be reckoned with - an important thinker who has succeeded in forging his way in Israeli and Israeli Arab politics and in the Arab world at large.

Bishara began his political career in the shadow of the hegemony of the Marxist Hadash Party, which championed the slogan: "Two states for two peoples - Israel and Palestine." But one state for the Jewish people and one for the Palestinian people did not satisfy Bishara. He wanted more, perhaps justifiably, and thus created what was supposed to be his magic formula: "A state of all its citizens" - a kind of intellectual exercise in escaping from the trap of 1948, the trap of the Nakba ("catastrophe" - the Palestinians' term for what happened to them after 1948).

But something went awry on the way to "a state of all its citizens." The underlying assumption was that the Israeli Arabs' partners in dialogue are the state of Israel and the Jewish people. According to Bishara, they were supposed to agree to relinquish the Jewish character of the state. In practice, however, no such dialogue took place, and Bishara spoke to Israel's Arabs while his gaze focused beyond the border. His interlocutor was, and remains, the Arab nation. Bishara's trips to Syria are just an example of this.

Bishara's supporters at political demonstrations always took care to make a distinction between themselves and others by waving the Palestinian flag. In the last Knesset elections, in a desperate attempt to persuade Arab voters not to vote for Zionist parties, Bishara coined a slogan that increased his notoriety: "If your vote is Zionist, then who are you?" No one bothered to ask him then, "And if you, Bishara, are a Knesset member in Zionist Israel, then who are you?"

A few years have passed since Bishara and his Balad party abandoned the dream of egalitarian citizenship in favor of the pan-Arabism of Egypt's late president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. They actively advocated for a strong, solid Palestinian Arab identity detached emotionally and intellectually from Israel - an identity that did not tie in on even the most basic levels with the "state of all its citizens" in whose name Bishara was originally voted into the Knesset.

Balad's explanation of this shift was that only an Arab citizen who is conscious of his identity can stand up for his national and civil rights. This is the background for Balad's war against the "Israelization" they viewed as threatening the Arabs in Israel.

An entire generation of Israeli Arabs was raised in this pan-Arab school of thought. Tens of thousands of young people underwent a process of heightening their Arab identities, while ostensibly dreaming of - and fighting for - the birth of a different, abstract state of Israel, one with no defined outline; an Israel in which one could live while still feeling as if in Palestine; an Israel in which one could sing the Palestinian national anthem in Hebrew - as a compromise - with the Palestinian flag in the backdrop.

Whether or not Bishara returns to Israel is already a marginal issue. What is important is his legacy: tens of thousands of young people who must bear the shattering of an unrealizable dream; a generation that lives with a sense of alienation and hopelessness while Israel, the Arab world and the rest of the world increasingly recognize a formula for peace based on a recognition of Israel's existence not as a state of all of its citizens, but as the state of the Jewish people.

It is obvious to these youth that Israel and the Jewish people will not relinquish the Jewish character of the state no matter what. And it is clear to them, as it is to Bishara, that the practical meaning for them of the historic compromise between the Arab peoples and Israel is the relinquishment of their vision of political independence. There is no Greater Palestine. There is no right of return. There is no state of all its citizens.

For Azmi, the man, apparently it was too much.

Riad Ali is a reporter for Channel One of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.