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An Interview with Azmi Bishara from Tikkun.org From the pages of Tikkun.org

This week Palestine Report interviews Arab Member of Knesset Azmi Bishara on the upcoming Israeli elections and Israeli diplomacy in the Arab world.

PR: Have we entered the post-Oslo period?

Bishara: Yes. I think we entered the post-Oslo period in [talks at] Camp David itself, not only in the Intifada. It was here that the logic of bits and pieces and the transitory period were finished without leading to a final status agreement, even from the point of view of people who were for it, who supported Oslo.

From the Israeli side, the last two prime ministers, [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Ehud] Barak, shared one thing against the whole logic of the transitional solutions. They shared the strategy of pushing the Palestinians to go directly to a final status agreement without what [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat usually calls 'the implementation of what I agreed upon.' At the time of Oslo, they were against Oslo.

I think that both Netanyahu and Barak do want to go to a final status, without the transitional period, but they approach it with the mentality of the transitional period. When reaching the historical solution of a conflict extending a hundred years, you can't deal with it in bits and pieces - give me here, let me take from here a little bit. That is their problem.

What the Intifada achieved on that point was that it made it clear that there can be no final status [agreement] that is not just. At least theoretically, the principle of justice must be employed in any final status and you can't reach a final status that has legitimacy in the framework of the rejectionist positions of Barak.Oslo as a reality is there. The realities that
Oslo produced are still there.

PR: Is there any chance at this point of returning to that format?

Bishara: There will be a lot of pressure to get back to the format of negotiations of the United States as mediator, and Israel and the Palestinians negotiating. But even the Palestinians who agreed to this before the Intifada would find hardship agreeing to it after the Intifada. There have been a lot of suggestions going around that the Palestinians have not agreed to or not responded to, but there is always the possibility of pressure.

PR: What should Palestinians expect from Barak in the period before the elections?

Bishara: I don't see Barak reviewing the main components of the solution that he suggested.

In terms of an escalation, if you take it superficially, the Labor party government should not have an interest at the eve of elections to have more violence. Why? Because more violence will bring the Israeli public more to the right. It will lead the voters to the right wing.

But you can't control violence. Labor may find itself in an escalation situation without even thinking about it, because after certain strikes it will have to show that it is even more determined than the right wing in fighting the Intifada. If we compare [this Intifada] with Netanyahu and September 1996 and the tunnel uprising, 16 Israeli soldiers were killed in three days and still after that Intifada he gave up Hebron and a redeployment of 10 percent. No missiles. Of course, there are differences. That fight was in the implementation of the transitional period, while this fight is over the final status.

Still there is an element of the Labor party using more violence and using more severe operations because the opposition is in the right wing. If you have the right wing in the government, the opposition is restraining the government. Then there is the international community. Labor is the camp of peace and therefore the Palestinians are accused of being against peace when they are against this government. So, there is chance of escalation.

PR: Many people have been writing that Barak's only chance at winning the elections is to get an agreement with the Palestinians, which in effect give Palestinians control over who will lead Israel. Do you want to comment on this in any way?

Bishara: There is such a possibility. Let's say that the Intifada first pushed the Israelis to the right. But it also made more Israelis think that it is important to have a final settlement with the Palestinians. If violence continues, they prefer right, but they will vote for the left if it brings a final status. Interesting, but true.

But you can't have an agreement so that Barak will be elected. Palestinians cannot have this motivation for an agreement. The point of an
agreement is to solve the Palestinian problem, not to elect Barak. If he runs a policy that is even worse than the Likud [Israel's largest Right party], why should I help him to rule? At least in the case of the Likud, I will have the world and the Left with me. Why should I help him run the policy of the Likud with my vote?

PR: I read that there was pressure from the Palestinian leadership on Arab Knesset members to vote with Barak and not help to bring down the government. Was this true?

Bishara: Not for me, that is all I can say. It was clear that there were some elements in the Palestinian Authority who were interested in Barak remaining, but then it became clear that there was no Jewish majority.

PR: In terms of the Palestinians inside Israel, deep wounds have been opened and people have died. Is the Israeli government making efforts to heal those wounds? Or are we in transition in the other direction?

Bishara: The Israeli effort is to backlash on the Intifada and convince the Arab-Israelis that they have something to lose and that the "radical elements" that brought about the uprising among the Arabs in Israel are to blame.

As usual, they will try to buy people with budgets here and there. But now we see some ex-agents or collaborators with the Zionist parties raising their heads in certain Arabic newspapers that have interests with advertisements of the government trying to hit back what they call "radical extremists." This is healing the wounds?

This is not working at all. What we tried for years to convince those young people to understand was done in days. We don't know what to do now with people coming to us. We don't have the capacity to absorb them in organizations, we don't have money, we don't have clubs. A lot of people now understand what we always said - equality without equal citizenship means nothing. All the rights that the Arabs gained are built in sand and they will collapse in one night, and they did.

The Israeli police, the Israeli border guards viewed [the Arabs] as enemies, not as second-class citizens. The question of Arabs in Israel is not simply a question of discrimination, but it is a question of exclusion, of total alienation from the state. And the test of Israeli democracy never passes the test of nationalism.

I think the conclusion that was drawn is that the illusion of integration collapsed. Even people who believed in it don't believe in it anymore. What we need to emphasize is that we don't want to be integrated as individuals, we want to be treated as equal citizens and to have our nationality
as a group. Our nationality is older than the state of Israel. We have to be critical towards ourselves, to be critical towards our history, but I do not want to be marginalized.

I think a lot of Arabs think more and more about Arab institutions along national lines that have to do not only with politics, but with economy and culture. A lot of Arabs felt that they are not organized at all. They are divided in two, either Arab workers in the Jewish market or Arab businesses that give services to the Jews. I don't want a separate Arab economy,
but what I see is that there is not even an Arab production process, not even an Arab semi-economy.

The economy of the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza is so bad, but at least they have something. The Arabs in Israel are individuals who work for the Jews. They get a higher salary, that's it. In the West Bank and Gaza there are two dairy factories. If Tnuva does not bring the milk to the Arab villages, they will be without. The Arab villages are not more than motels where you sleep to go to work for the Jews. The only bourgeoisie is the mediating bourgeoisie between Arab workers and Jewish production.

The political level is very clear for us. It is time to reorganize, not only on the local level, but to have institutions with international contacts. We should behave like a national minority and national minorities have rights under international law.

-Published 6/12/00 (c) Palestine Report

January 8, 2001