The last-minute agreement to form a right-of-center government inIsrael headed by the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu is neither surprising nor shocking. Rather, it is consistent with the trends of the past four decades that have seen the entire Middle East region shift toward increasingly narrow state identities and government policies defined by a combination of narrow ethnicity, increased militarism and religious conservatism.
Some or all these factors are visible in Israel, Arab states, Iran and Turkey. In some ways, Israel’s embrace of right-wing Zionist ethno-nationalism has been one of the propellers of the regional trend. This started with the advent of Likud-led governments in the late 1970s headed by Menachem Begin that vastly expanded the Zionist colonial enterprise in occupied Arab lands. This turned out to be one of several factors that contributed to the growth of right-wing Islamist movements or militant resistance movements in Arab countries.
Much more significant for the steady growth of Arab conservative Islamism were domestic factors, such as corruption, poverty, military rule and severe disparities among Arab citizens in opportunities and well-being. But Israel’s expansionist, colonies-anchored Jewish ethno-nationalism has been a dynamic element in the regional trend.
One element in this Zionist trajectory has been the relatively recent demand that Palestinians formally recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” which has only heightened the troubling regional trend toward less pluralism and more exclusivist states and communities defined by a single ethnicity, nationalism or religion. The idea ofIsrael as a “Jewish state,” where in practice Jews generally have priority rights over people of other faiths and identities in terms of migration, land ownership and other issues, seems to legitimize for others the concept of such single-identity states. Examples are South Sudan, northern Iraq, previously South Yemen, and perhaps, more radically but improbably in my view, future statelets for Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze and distinct demographic groups.
The most radical and dangerous new manifestation of this trend is ISIS, which emerged in parts of Syria and Iraq last year. Not only has this phenomenon emerged in the Levant, but it has also attracted expressions of allegiance from smaller colonies and like-minded extremists in other Arab countries, such as Libya, Egypt and Yemen. I expect ISIS will be defeated in the coming year or two, but that is not certain, and it could persist in a smaller rump state that circles the wagons and does not go around attacking its neighbors, many of whom could grow weary of fighting it. Small states based on narrow religious identities and protected by military force run counter to the modern history of the Middle East, but they have become part of that history.
The new Israeli coalition is troubling because it seems to flow smoothly in this ugly stream of narrow, militaristic, intolerant ethno-nationalism, for several reasons. The first is the fully rightist combination of parties in the coalition, including Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Kulanu and the Jewish Home parties. This government effectively rules out any serious discussion about a peace agreement that leads to the birth of a Palestinian state. Instead, it promises continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied Arab territories. Heralding this, just after the coalition was announced the East Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox settlement of Ramat Shlomo announced approval for building 900 more homes there for Zionist settlers.
Also troubling is the agreement for Jewish Home parliamentarianAyelet Shaked to head the Justice Ministry. This could ease moves to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to check the excesses of the parliament and government. The Jewish Home Party’s strong backing for legislation to annex the occupied West Bank and affirm the Jewish nature of the state (20 percent of whose citizens are not Jewish) are among the extremist positions now comfortably voiced in the government.
The absence of any serious debate during the campaign about Israel’s regional policies, and its relations with Palestinians in particular, also clarifies the low priority of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the minds and lives of Jewish Israelis. Combined with continued settlements expansion, this will only keep increasing the pressures that will build up with every year that Palestinian national rights remain unaddressed. The Palestinians’ well-being throughout the region will deteriorate, making future wars, armed resistance to other forms of violence inevitable.
Israelis, at least the Jewish majority of them, have supported rightist, militaristic, expansionist, colonialist, chauvinistic and often religiously defined national governments for nearly four decades, for a variety of reasons. Similar trends have rippled across much of the rest of the Middle East, for different reasons. We should stop being surprised when we see people around the region freely choosing this sort of statehood and leadership. Instead we should focus more diligently on the underlying issues that propel them in this dangerous direction.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.