Narrow Ethno-nationalism Plagues All in the Middle East

The Middle East continues shifting toward increasingly narrow state identities and government policies that are defined by a combination of narrow ethnicity, increased militarism and religious conservatism.

The last-minute agreement to form a right-of-center government in Israel 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 towards increasingly narrow state identities and government policies that are 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 rightist Zionist ethno-nationalism has been one of the propellers of this 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, which turned out to be one of several factors that contributed to the growth of rightwing Islamist movements or militant resistance movements in Arab countries.

Much more significant for the steady growth of Arab conservative Islamism were domestic factors, like corruption, poverty, military rule, and severe disparities among Arab citizens in opportunities and wellbeing; 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 towards less pluralism and more exclusivist states and communities that are defined by a single ethnicity, nationalism or religion. The idea of Israel 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 other such single-identity states. Examples are South Sudan, northern Iraq, 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 the “Islamic State” (IS) that emerged in parts of Syria and Iraq last year, following the years of growth of its predecessor the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). 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 IS 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 that comprises Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Kulanu and the Jewish Home parties. This government effectively rules out any serious discussions about a peace agreement that includes the birth of a Palestinian state, and instead promises continued expansion of Zionist colonial ventures in the occupied Arab territories. As if to herald this, just after the coalition agreement 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 MP Ayelet Shaked to head the justice ministry, which could ease moves to weaken the supreme court’s ability to check the excesses of the rightist-dominated parliament and government. The Jewish Home Party’s strong backing for legislation to annex the occupied West Bank and to affirm the Jewish nature of the state (20 percent of whose citizens are not Jewish) are among the extremist positions that now live comfortably within 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 Israel-Palestine 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 and the well-being of Palestinians throughout the region deteriorates—making future wars, armed resistance to other forms of mutually destructive violence inevitable.

The Israeli people, at least the Jewish majority of them, have repeatedly supported such 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, and instead we should focus more diligently on the underlying issues that propel them in this dangerous direction.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global