UNITED NATIONS — The reported intent of a leading Israeli Arab legislator to resign his Knesset seat is threatening the fragile relations between Israel's majority Jewish population and its Arab minority.
A firebrand advocate of ending Israel's standing as a Jewish state, Azmi Bishara of the Balad Party has been out of the country for more than two weeks. A report Friday in a local Arab-language newspaper that the Knesset member plans to resign his post — and subsequent reports that he could seek asylum in Qatar — has become the talk of the Knesset.
"There are so many rumors, but I have to wait for the gag order to be lifted before I can make any sensible comment," a Knesset member who represents the dovish wing of the Labor Party, Colette Avital, said in a phone interview yesterday. "We have to be patient. It is too early to call him — as some of my colleagues have done — a spy or an enemy of the state."
Because the Israeli internal security services have placed a gag order on the case, the Israeli press has not published details of a rumored investigation into Mr. Bishara's activities last summer. In the past, he has made statements of solidarity with Hezbollah, which Israel and America have called a terrorist organization, and with Syria, which is at war with Israel.
During its war with Israel last summer, Hezbollah put high value on strategic targets in northern Israel, but many of its medium- and short-range rockets ended up falling in nearby Arab towns and villages, where most of Mr. Bishara's constituents live.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Bishara, who lives in a wealthy neighborhood in Haifa, left for Qatar during the Knesset's Passover recess. He appeared on Al-Jazeera as a political analyst during the Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and confidants say he is now on his way to Europe.
Israeli Arabs constitute roughly 20% of Israel's population. Led by Mr. Bishara, many of them have called for Israel to become a "state of all its citizens," opening it up to Arab immigrants who would become the majority.
"Nobody has been more harmful to the delicate relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews than Bishara, and if indeed he has decided to leave, this will benefit everyone," the leader of the Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, said at a public event in northern Israel.
"Bishara is involved in a very serious affair," a leader of the National Religious Party, Effie Eitam, told Israel Radio yesterday, hinting at the lawmaker's possible collaboration with an Israeli enemy. "Arab Knesset members who visit enemy countries violate the law and are scornful of the loyalty to our state."
Mr. Bishara has maintained close ties to Damascus and its Baathist government, as well as Hezbollah, and he has traveled to Syria and Lebanon several times. "Hezbollah won, and we" — the Arabs — "have tasted victory for the first time since 1967," he said in 2000 in the aftermath of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, in a speech made in the Israeli Arab city of Um al Fahm. "It is the right of Hezbollah to be proud of its achievements and to humiliate Israel."
A year later, after making a similar statement in Qardaha, Syria, at the funeral of President Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Bishara's was stripped of his immunity from prosecution as a Knesset member and he was indicted for supporting a terror organization. In 2006, however, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the speeches consisted political activity and reinstated his immunity.
A Knesset member since 1996, Mr. Bishara embarked on a groundbreaking but brief prime ministerial campaign in 1999. He formed the National Democratic Assembly, known as Balad, after a split from the Arab Communist Party, which he joined after an academic career started upon his graduation from Israeli and East German universities. Balad won three seats in the 120-member Knesset in last year's election.
On Friday, a Nazareth-based Arab newspaper, a-Sinara, reported on its Web site that Mr. Bishara intended "in the next few days" to tender his resignation from the Knesset. He was in Amman, Jordan, with family members at the time. Relatives and party allies, however, immediately denied the report, saying Mr. Bishara, a Christian, always spends Easter in Jordan with his family. While not denying that Mr. Bishara has asked top Balad officials to be allowed to resign, the party said no final decision has been made yet.