Arab Knesset members remarks spark investigation

Rubinstein advised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit, and police investigations head Moshe Mizrahi of the decision Tuesday afternoon.

Beshara, who went to Damascus to participate in the memorial marking the first anniversary of the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad, called upon the Arab world to "unite against the warmongering Sharon government," and voiced support for the Palestinian uprising. He appeared at the event alongside Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and the heads of Hamas and other Palestinian groups.

Arab Knesset members have previously caused consternation among Israelis by openly identifying with enemies of Israel, and invoking their parliamentary immunity when challenged. But Beshara's speech was unprecedented in its ferocity and forum.

In an interview with Qatari television the next day, Beshara stood by his statements. Staffers at his Nazareth office, meanwhile, were adamant that he had merely given voice to the standard Balad party platform. Moreover, they filed a police complaint against Knesset Member Michael Kleiner, claiming that by saying "in any normal country, [Beshara] would be put before a firing squad" he had incited a murder.

Kleiner was joined by Knesset members across the political spectrum in condemning Beshara. At a vociferous discussion of the Damascus speech during Tuesday's meeting of the Knesset House Committee, only the Arab members ventured to defend Beshara's statements.

Ar the outset, Rubinstein had played down the possibility of prosecuting Beshara. He noted that election law prohibits a political party from denying Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, but it was not clear the speech constituted a violation of that. Furthermore, he said Beshara could not be charged with visiting an enemy country without authorization, as he had done so on a diplomatic passport.

Rubinstein did suggest, however, that Beshara's Balad Party could be barred from the next Knesset elections because its leader objects to the existence of the Jewish state.

Beshara is known for telling his constituents that they are Israelis by accident of geography only, but are Palestinian in their hearts.

His remarks on Sunday prompted a furor in Israel and calls from some quarters for charges of treason.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer called the remarks "shocking."

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said Beshara's parliamentary immunity should be lifted so charges can be brought against him.

Others, however, said the state would be wise not to let Beshara adopt the pose of a "tortured saint."

"This is exactly what Beshara is looking for — to be tried in a political trial in the state of Israel, which will play into his hands and build him up among the Arab population," Justice Minster Meir Sheetrit said.

"I propose dealing with him the opposite way, to act within the Knesset Ethics Committee, so that the man will get fitting treatment, as I believe he has very seriously violated the Knesset's regulations on ethics."

Beshara said his statements contained nothing he had not said before in Israel.

"This is not the first time I have spoken in Syria, and not the first time I speak in such a forum," he was quoted as saying from Damascus. "Every word I said at the ceremony I have said dozens of times in Israel and also from the Knesset podium."

Sheetrit said Beshara had done serious damage to the sensitive state of Arab-Jewish relations within Israel and had badly harmed the image of Arab citizens.

"Does anyone think this does the Arab sector any good?," Sheetrit asked. "He is personally sawing off the branch he's sitting on, and is causing serious damage to the Arab population. He, and other Arab members of Knesset who speak out in such an extreme manner."