NAZARETH // Six Arab members of the Israeli parliament returned last week from a visit to Libya at the personal invitation of its leader, Muammer Qadafi, to a storm of protest in Israel, including threats to prosecute them and bar them from standing in future elections. The delegation of 39 public figures from Israel's Arab minority, who were flown to Tripoli on Mr Qadafi's private plane last weekend, had requested the visit in the hope of breaking their isolation in the Arab world.
The invitation had special importance for Israel's Arab leaders because Libya, which hosted the Arab League summit last month, is seen as their gateway to the other Arab countries, which have traditionally regarded dealings with any Israelis, including one-fifth of the population who are Palestinian Arabs, as "normalisation". Last week, however, the Israeli parliament erupted into angry exchanges as the Arab MPs returned to work, with right-wing legislators accusing them of "treason". In an unprecedented incident, one Arab MP was forcibly removed from the podium by guards as he talked about the trip.
A committee of MPs is due to consider stripping the Arab legislators of their parliamentary immunity, possibly leaving the way open for their prosecution for visiting an "enemy state". The latest debacle adds to the besieged status of the 10 MPs belonging to Arab parties, who say they are facing a campaign of persecution since the right-wing government of the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to power a year ago.
"Israel forced us into a political and cultural ghetto for decades and is targeting us because we are breaking out of this abnormal situation by engaging with the Arab nation to which we belong," said Haneen Zoubi, one of the MPs in the delegation. The three-day visit to Libya was made possible after months of negotiations between Israel's Arab leaders and Mohammed al Barghouti, Libya's ambassador to Jordan. The delegation flew from the Jordanian capital, Amman, to Tripoli on April 24 without their Israeli passports being stamped or receiving a visa.
They were later hosted by Mr Qadafi in Sirte, his hometown and the venue of the Arab League summit. Calling them "Arabs of '48" - a reference to the fact that they were part of the Palestinian people until Israel's creation in 1948 - Mr Qadafi told the delegation last Sunday that they had been invited because "I want the world to hear you". In comments widely reported in the Israeli media, the Libyan leader warned that Israel's actions were pushing it "to the edge of the precipice" and that the West's pursuit of a two-state solution, as opposed to a single binational state, was "stupid and unrealistic".
He added that the Arab minority should concentrate on having more babies to defeat Zionism, arguing that a "human explosion is stronger than nuclear weapons", in a remark that accentuated widely held fears among Israel's Jewish majority that Arab citizens are a demographic "ticking time bomb" that could end the state's Jewishness. Most of the delegation spoke at the meeting in favour of Israel's reform into a state representing "all its citizens" rather than just the Jewish majority.
Mr Qadafi was also reported to have agreed to consider a request to open Libya's colleges to Israel's Arab students, who face major obstacles to studying inside the country. Many already study in Jordan, which along with Egypt has signed a peace agreement with Israel. Jamal Zahalka, one of the six MPs, said that the meeting had been a breakthrough for the minority. "He told us that it was very important our voice is heard in the Arab world, that we remain in our homeland despite the threats against us, and that he would do everything in his power to help."
The Libyan leader, Mr Zahalka added, had agreed to discuss with the Arab League assigning Israel's Arab minority an observer status at its meetings. The delegation's warm welcome in Libya contrasted strongly with the opprobrium that greeted the Arab MPs on their appearance in the Israeli parliament on Wednesday. Israeli Arab leaders have avoided trips to most Arab states since a law was passed in 2008 granting officials the power to bar individuals and parties who have visited an enemy state from running for election.
One MP, Saed Nafa, who was not in the delegation, is facing prosecution over a trip he made to Syria as part of a Druze group in 2007. Mr Zahalka said they had received legal advice before the trip that Libya was not included in an emergency regulation listing "enemy states", which reportedly include Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. However, Yaffa Zilbershats, a professor of constitutional law at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, told the Jerusalem Post newspaper that Libya was listed in an annex to the regulation.
The parliament's house committee is to meet tomorrow to consider stripping the MPs of their immunity in a move that would make them vulnerable to prosecution for the trip. "What we have here is an historic opportunity to abolish once and for all the immunity and rights of [parliament] members who hate Israel and denigrate the state," said Michael Ben Ari, a far-right legislator. Ahmed Tibi, who was removed from the parliament's podium as he spoke about the trip, called the immunity hearing "a bizarre and crazy debate in keeping with the atmosphere of persecution that emerges here time and again".
Ms Zoubi said the true goal of the furore was to make it more difficult for Arab parties to run in the next general election. In the last national election, a special committee comprising the main Zionist parties disqualified all the Arab parties from running, although its decision was overturned by the courts. "The talk of our breaking the law in visiting Libya is designed to turn the courts against us," she said.
The six MPs are also facing an investigation by the ethics committee after Reuven Rivlin, the parliament ary speaker, claimed that they had violated rules about disclosing funding from private sources in accepting a flight on Mr Qadafi's plane. A poll published last month showed that 56 per cent of Israeli Jewish youth believe leaders of the country's Arab minority should not be allowed to stand for election.