Israeli-Arab Lawmaker Under Fire For 'Treasonous' Statements

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - An Israeli Arab parliamentarian seemed unlikely to face prosecution Monday, after making comments in Syria that some Israeli lawmakers consider treasonous.

Legal experts said Azmi Bishara enjoyed diplomatic immunity, despite the remarks he made at a venue shared with some of the most virulent anti-Israel groups.

Bishara made a speech on Sunday at a memorial service in Syria for the late President Hafez Assad. Syria is still at war with Israel.

He told the audience that Israel had given the Arabs no choice except to "enlarge this resistance sphere, so that people can carry on with the struggle."

He also praised the activities of the militant Hizballah organization that waged an 18-year guerrilla and terror war against Israeli troops based in southern Lebanon and northern Israel. Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was in the audience, which also included militant Palestinian leader Ahmed Jibril.

Bishara spoke of the "the heroism of the Islamic struggle" and said in the face of Israeli government policies, there was an increased need for pan-Arab unity.

Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said on Monday that Israel's "legal tools are limited" in this case.

"I say this with great sorrow. A man comes to a place of enemies, sits down with enemies of the major league, and speaks to them of resistance: This is not a mission of peace, and let no one try to sell such fables," he said in a radio interview.

Rubinstein said that although "common sense" would say that Bishara's remarks constituted incitement to war and violence, it would be very difficult to prove in a court of law.

"As a Knesset Member he can say whatever he wishes to say," said Professor Menachem Hofnung, a legal and political science expert from the Hebrew University.

Termed, "substantive immunity," the law states that a parliamentarian cannot face criminal charges for anything he does in his role as lawmaker, he added.

"If somebody else had done what he did it would be a different matter," Hofnung said. "In that case the Attorney General would have pressed charges [for] going to an enemy state and siding with an enemy cause. He would have stood trial for treason."

The chairman of the right-wing Herut party, Michael Kleiner, suggested that trial would be too lenient a punishment for Bishara. "In any normal nation they would put him up in front of a firing squad. It cannot be that a parliamentarian in the State of Israel encourages the Arab nations to launch full-scale war against it."

Bishara himself downplayed the uproar, saying that a fuss was being made for no reason. He argued that he had made similar statements in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) itself in the past.

Earlier, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said he was looking into the possibility of stripping Bishara of his Israeli citizenship. Other lawmakers from both the left and right also expressed their anger at the comments.

Although Bishara may be off the hook for now, his Balad party could be in trouble the next time elections roll around.

According to Israeli law, any party that "rejects the existence of the State of Israel cam be barred from running," Hofnung said. He suspected it could be argued that what Bishara said proves he objects to the existence of Israel, he added.