The new law is a departure from the territorial principle and is likely to erode Israel’s legitimacy as a nation state
A few days ago, the Israeli daily Haaretz said about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Call it irony or call it inevitability, this man who has spent every waking minute of the last decade warning Israelis about the dangers of the Iran of the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guard, also spent that same time turning Israel into the Iran of the Rabbinate and the rogue settler.” Mr. Netanyahu recently got the Knesset to pass a law that defines Israel as the homeland of the Jews, not Israelis. While this may be consistent with the original Zionist idea propounded before the massive migration of European Jews to Palestine and the eventual creation of the Israeli state, it has grave implications now that Israel is established as a territorial nation state with a sizeable non-Jewish population.
Caught between two pulls
Israel has always struggled to present itself as a typical nation state that belongs to all Israelis regardless of race or religion but also as the homeland of the Jewish people no matter where they live. State-sponsored Jewish immigration, the “law of return” applicable only to Jews, and the denial of the right to return to Palestinian refugees and their descendants were all products of this latter urge. The dilemma was exacerbated because of the continued occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967 that has led to official projections that soon there will be as many Arabs as Jews in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Nonetheless, for a time it appeared that the compulsions of acting like a responsible nation state built on the territorial principle had tamed Israel’s extra-territorial aspirations. The passage of the latest law has proved this assumption wrong. This law makes Israel the mirror image of the concept of the Islamic caliphate which was expected to embrace all Muslims and to which all Muslims, no matter where they lived, were expected to be loyal. Now, most of the Muslim world, except for outliers like the Islamic State and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, have given up this goal and adjusted to the nation state system based on the territorial principle.
It is ironic that Mr. Netanyahu and his allies have now come to assume the mantle of the “caliphate” that is expected to embrace all Jews and demand their unflinching loyalty. Such a blatant departure from the territorial principle is likely to not only make Israel an outlier in the international system but seriously erode its legitimacy as a nation state in the eyes of its peers.
The passage of the latest law is bound to exacerbate the problem that Jews living outside Israel face — namely, how to reconcile their affinity with Israel with their loyalty to the states in which they reside. With the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, the new law makes European Jews more vulnerable to attacks by right-wing and neo-Nazi elements in these countries.
Ostensibly, the situation may not be as bad in the U.S. However, the ascendancy of the right under President Donald Trump makes one wonder how long the anti-Jewish feeling among this constituency will remain lurking and not become overt in the political arena and force American Jews into an unnecessarily defensive position. This will likely not merely impact their security as an ethnic group but also reduce the clout of the pro-Israel lobby in the American political system. Israel’s influence in the U.S. is largely based on the perceived legitimacy of this lobby and is essential for Washington’s unqualified support to Israeli policies even when they conflict with American interests in West Asia.
The impact on Israel’s domestic situation is likely to be very severe as well. The law automatically excludes Israeli Arabs from the sphere of full citizenship. While this may have been the case in practice from 1948, this law makes discrimination against more than a fifth of the Israeli population legal. On the obverse side, it means that the Israeli state can no longer make a rightful claim on the loyalty of its Arab citizens.
The Jewish homeland law can have major regional implications too. It is likely to make the prospect for peace with the Palestinians more remote. It will put states like Saudi Arabia that are interested in normalising relations with Israel in a very uncomfortable position and will strengthen hard-line Iranian leaders who argue that Israel is an alien construct in West Asia and has no right to exist in the region.
Creating a “caliphate” by passing a law may appear easy. Sustaining it against multiple hazards is a much more difficult task.
Mohammed Ayoob is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, DC, and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Originally published in The Hindu.