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Israeli Arab leader is on police radar

The lawmaker, accused of aiding enemies of the state, alleges a case of political persecution.

JERUSALEM - Police said yesterday that they suspected Israel's most outspoken Arab leader of aiding enemies of the Jewish state, a case that threatens to inflame volatile relations between the country's Jews and its Arab minority.

Lawmaker Azmi Bishara, who has left Israel, says he is a victim of political persecution. But hard-line Israelis see the case as proof of a growing internal threat.

Since joining parliament in 1996, Bishara, 50, a Christian from Nazareth, has antagonized many Jewish Israelis by meeting with some of Israel's bitterest enemies, including the leaders of Syria and Hezbollah.

He fled Israel a month ago without providing a reason, prompting much speculation about the case but few details, because a gag order kept most information out of the public eye.

After a court eased the order yesterday, police disclosed that Bishara was suspected of crimes against Israel's security, aiding the enemy during wartime, passing intelligence to the enemy, contacting foreign agents, and receiving money in violation of laws against money-laundering.

No charges have been filed, and key details remain classified until next week. Some of the alleged offenses occurred during Israel's war last summer with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

He said Bishara was questioned twice by investigators and had reneged on promises to return for further questioning.

Bishara, who quit parliament over the weekend, accused Israel of trying to frame him. "The aim is to convene a court to turn Bishara into a petty criminal facing security violations," he told the Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera from Qatar.

Israel, he said, is using him to cover up failures during its war with Hezbollah. Bishara also said he would not return to Israel soon.