There is more than meets the eye in the trumped up Israeli charges against Azmi Bishara, the charismatic Palestinian Arab legislator who has resigned from the Knesset (Israel's parliament) days before a police document said he is being investigated on suspicion of helping Hezbollah during last summer's fruitless war with Lebanon, money-laundering and other offences pertaining to national security.

Although he had already been investigated twice earlier, the Israeli charges have yet to be formally filed against the popular Arab parliamentarian who has a large following among the Arabs in Israel, estimated to number about one fifth of Israel's population, and within the Arab World where he is a frequent visitor at policy forums and talk shows alongside meetings with top officials.

Born in Nazareth, Bishara, a Christian, studied in East Germany where he earned a doctorate in philosophy and was a leading figure in Hadash, the communist, non-Zionist party of both Jews and Arabs, until he founded the Balad Party or the National Democratic Assembly which has two other Arab parliamentarians in the Knesset.

Bishara has been for a long time a pain in the neck for the Israeli leadership and specifically the right-wing of the Israeli establishment which does not favour the presence of over a million Arabs - "a demographic threat" - predominantly in the Galilee region, north of Israel. He has long argued publicly and forcibly that Israel must come to terms with its self-defeating declaration, which has lots of resonance in the West, particularly the United States, that it is a state of the Jewish people and the only democracy in the Middle East.

If so, what about its Palestinian Arab population which by all accounts has a second-class status in the Jewish state, particularly in the first decades after the founding of Israel when they lived under military rule and received less government attention.

In time, Bishara has come up with the daunting yet plausible idea, endorsed by many Arab intellectuals in Israel, that Israel should henceforth declare itself a "state of all its citizens". This idea was the central theme of a document called Future Vision which has rattled many Israelis, including Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, who complained to senior Israeli officials that the Arabs in Israel have fast become a "strategic threat".

In yesteryears, the compliant Arab population was mainly focused on seeking "equality and equity", as the Christian Science Monitor put it, "trying to close the funding gap between how much Arab schools and municipalities got compared to Jewish ones".

Ethnic cleansing

But nowadays Israel has become more racist, especially with the presence of such notorious officials as Avigdor Lieberman, leader of a party that espouses ethnic cleansing both of Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel. Lieberman is now a deputy prime minister charged with focusing on "strategic threats" that face Israel.

Jonathan Cook, a freelance journalist who lives in Nazareth and is author of a must-read book, Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State, finds that "regular opinion polls (in Israel) show that about two-thirds of Israelis supported transfer, either voluntary or by force, of Palestinian citizens from the state."

He wrote:

"Recent polls also reveal how fashionable racism has become in Israel. A survey conducted last year showed that 68 per cent of Israeli Jews do not want to live next to a Palestinian citizen (and rarely have to, as segregation is largely enforced by the authorities), and 46 per cent would not want an Arab to visit their home. A poll of students that was published (last January) suggests that racism is even stronger among young Jews."

A writer in the Israeli daily Haaretz pointed out recently that Arab members of the Knesset "are constantly walking a fine line and sometimes crossing it, coming out harshly against the [Israeli] state, showing understanding for acts against it, and paying visits to enemy states such as Syria and Lebanon. The right accuses the Arabs of disloyalty and treason, and proposed laws to limit their freedom of action and to unseat them. Each side claims the other side's acts are 'a slippery slope that endangers Israeli democracy'."

A bill was proposed by a rightist Israeli parliamentarian proposing to block anyone who visited an "enemy" country from being elected to the Knesset. Such a law or "witch hunt" could end Arab membership in the Israeli legislature.

There are countless other examples of Israeli mistreatment of the Arab population, an issue that has troubled Bishara for so long and now says he is facing three options - "martyrdom, exile, or prison". At the same time he is receiving contradictory advice from friends. Some would like him to return to Israel and challenge these charges while others say this is not the time particularly since Israel is in the midst of a leadership crisis and he is likely to be a convenient scapegoat for either group.

George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at