Israel unhappy with politician reuniting Arab families in Syria

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JERUSALEM — He has enough clients booking tours to make a travel agent envious.

But Knesset member Azmi Beshara's activities as a go-between for Israeli Arabs who want to visit Syria have little to do with the profit motive.

By reuniting his constituents with their relatives in Syria, Beshara says, he is performing a humanitarian act.

Israeli security officials, however, take a different view. They are concerned that many of those making the trip are returning to Israel with greater loyalty to Syria — and are ready to act on that new loyalty in ways that will harm the security of the Jewish state.

Citing a law that bars Israeli citizens from traveling to enemy countries without permission from the Interior Ministry, Israeli police recently notified Beshara that he will soon be summoned as part of an investigation of the Syria trips.

Beshara said he welcomed the investigation, adding that he would be happy to see the case go to court. An indictment would allow "thousands of elderly people to bear witness to how much they miss their relatives," he said.

Beshara, 45, also has said he would turn the trial into a political indictment of Israel's security establishment.

The legislator is not one to shy from the political limelight.

Until his 11th-hour withdrawal from the 1999 race for prime minister, Beshara was the first Israeli Arab to seek the post — and this for a man who tells his constituents that they are Israelis by accident of geography only, but are Palestinian in their hearts.

After earning a doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University in what was then communist East Berlin, he went on to become the popular head of the philosophy department at Bir Zeit University, the hotbed of Palestinian nationalism in the West Bank.

In 1996, he was elected to the Knesset on a joint ticket with the communist Hadash Party.

Now serving in the Knesset as the sole member of the Balad Party, he is trying to establish himself as the main alternative to the growing influence of the Islamic movement in Israeli Arab politics.

A longtime champion of equal rights for Israeli Arabs, Beshara wants Israel to grant the nearly 1 million-member community cultural autonomy.

Many of his political ideas have gained widespread acceptance within Israeli Arab society, and Beshara hopes he can parley that into more seats for his party in the next elections.

The trips he arranges to Syria are part of this political strategy.

Just as fellow Israeli Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi established a special relationship with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — serving as Arafat's adviser on Israeli affairs until his election to the Knesset in 1999 — Beshara developed a special relationship with Syria's late President Hafez Assad.

"It was senior Egyptian journalist Mohammad Hasnin Heikal who convinced Assad to open his door for Beshara," recalled Israeli journalist Majdi Halabi. "Beshara helped Assad to better understand Israeli politics."

Beshara later used his contacts with Assad to allow small groups of Israeli Arabs to visit their families in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.

Halabi, who is Druze — an Arab people friendly with Jews that practice a secret religion that is not Muslim — returned from such a trip last January.

Although it is unlawful to enter Syria, some 800 Israeli Arabs, mostly elderly people, have already gone on Bishar's tours since July.

Hundreds more Israeli Arabs — some say thousands — are waiting to make the trip. The next group is slated to go to Syria next week.

The applicants register at Beshara's office in Nazareth. Beshara's staff goes over the lists.

"We must check whether the applicants truly have relatives in Syria," Beshara said in an interview.

The lists are passed to Damascus with Beshara's recommendation, which is usually honored. The groups go by bus to Jordan, continuing on to the Jaber border crossing with Syria.

"No one checked us at the border," Halabi recalled. "A personal representative of the president welcomed us at the VIP room, and from then on the trip went as smoothly as one could expect."

Once the group arrived at Damascus' Central Station, each member of the group went separately to visit relatives, mostly in the refugee camps.

Everyone involved benefits. The Israeli Arabs get to meet their relatives; Syria can boast of its humanitarian generosity and deepen its influence over the Palestinians both inside Israel and in Syria; and Beshara scores points with the Israeli Arab electorate.

Only Israel may lose out.

Although no one has said so publicly, Israeli security authorities are concerned that the Syrian authorities use their growing ties with Israel's Arab population for intelligence purposes.

"I know more than the eye can see," Dan Meridor, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said in an interview. "But since I cannot talk about what I know, I will not comment."

Beshara rejects insinuations that he may be acting against the security of the state and says he is determined to continue fostering his contacts in Damascus.

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