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Under Oath

Israel’s controversial new oath of allegiance reflects the reality of sectarian politics in the Middle East

Lee Smith
October 13, 2010
Benjamin Netanyahu at his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday.(Gali Tibbon-Pool/Getty Images)
Benjamin Netanyahu at his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday.(Gali Tibbon-Pool/Getty Images)

Sunday the Israeli cabinet approved a proposal to require an oath of allegiance be administered to naturalized citizens of Israel, swearing to abide by the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. The response has been blind outrage inside Israel and abroad.

“The State of Israel has reached the height of fascism,” says Haneen Zoubi, a member of the Knesset representing Balad, an Arab Israeli party. The oath’s author, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, charges that it is precisely those like Zoubi who make the oath necessary. Zoubi was aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-sponsored boat that attempted to run the naval blockade of Gaza. The ship violated international law by refusing to respect a blockade and then attacked an Israeli boarding party, which would make Zoubi, were she a citizen of, say, the United States while it was at war, subject to a number of charges, including conspiracy and treason, and liable to execution by the state. And she’s not alone: Some of her fellow Knesset members from Arab Israeli political parties have become notorious in recent years for actions that no Western government would tolerate from its citizens—let alone from legislators who are privy to government decisions and counsels. Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Israeli member of the Knesset, served as a close political adviser to Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian leader planned to undermine the Oslo Accords and murder hundreds of Israelis in the second Intifada. Tibi’s colleague, Azmi Bishara, resigned from the Knesset and fled to Syria in 2007 to avoid facing charges of espionage and treason for giving Hezbollah detailed information about optimal rocket targets inside Israel during the Second Lebanon War.

The idea that mandating an oath of allegiance for new citizens is a sign of Israeli fascism is part of the delegitimization campaign against Israel. It fits so well with media blather about the decline of Israeli democracy—and the nightmarish scariness of Israel’s foreign minister—that critics have conveniently ignored the fact that such oaths are normal fare in every major Western democracy. The U.S. oath of allegiance for new citizens, for example, requires new Americans to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty”; promise to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic”; promise to “bear arms” and “perform noncombatant” service at the direction of the U.S. government; and swear that one takes the oath “freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion” in the name of God Almighty himself, all of which makes swearing an oath of allegiance to the democratic Jewish State of Israel seem like pretty weak stuff.

The fact that Jews who become new citizens under the Law of Return are exempt from taking the oath is wrongly cited as proof of the inherent racism of the proposed new law. Countries that allow individuals not born in the country to establish citizenship on the basis of blood and cultural ties—a doctrine known as jus sanguinis, or “right of blood”—commonly have a different citizenship procedure for those citizens than for other immigrants. Most European countries—and many other countries—rely on jus sanguinis as the foundation for citizenship. In Bulgaria, persons of very distant Bulgarian origin can become citizens immediately upon arrival in the country without any waiting period and without giving up their current citizenship. The same is true in Croatia. China has a similar policy. And that only takes us through the Cs.

But the furor over the oath is more than just an index of the increasing tension between Israel and its Arab citizens, and of a combination of rancid anti-Israeli sentiment and sheer ignorance that makes news coverage of the Middle East so difficult to read. Because this is the Middle East, the uproar over the oath of allegiance also reveals the true dynamics that are shaping the region.

Many observers have noted that the oath coincides with Israeli demands that their Palestinian interlocutors acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. This is broadly correct: Israeli leadership expects that negotiations entered into with the Palestinian Authority will lead to a final settlement, that at the end of the process, there will be a Palestinian Arab state and a Jewish one, and there will be no interminable haggling over the question of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.

And the reason Jerusalem wants Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad to acknowledge the Jews’ right to a homeland is not merely a feel-good exercise in Middle East tolerance and coexistence, or to salve the national insecurities of the Jews. Rather, the Israeli demand is a referendum on Palestinian sovereignty: If PA officials can’t declare that Israel is a Jewish state without the very legitimate fear of assassination from rivals like Hamas, or state actors like Iran and Syria, then they are incapable of exercising the monopoly on legitimate violence that is the fundamental requirement of nation-building. Jerusalem is highlighting the fact that without the authority to make such a statement, the Palestinian leadership cannot build a Palestinian state; therefore, any treaty the PA signs with Israel is worthless.

It is clear that this logic is lost on Washington. After all, dreamers are not susceptible to disenchantment with the dream worlds that they themselves have built. Even before President Barack Obama came to office, the Americans were pumping so much cash, arms, prestige, and hope into the Palestinian Authority that they convinced themselves that Palestinian institutions would one day lead to a state. U.S.-built Palestinian institutions, like the economy, security forces, and the prime minister, are therefore premised on a questionable assumption: that what the Palestinian people really want is a functioning state side-by-side with Israel.

Statehood represents only one form of political organization; and as the E.U.’s bureaucratic elite will attest, the nation-state is not necessarily the best or even most progressive form of mass politics. But Washington does believe in old-fashioned nation-states, and it is U.S. money and power that gets to call the shots in the Middle East—until the region itself votes otherwise. Yet post-Saddam Iraq is clearly not going to be a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Rather, the wars in Iraq have revealed the sectarian nature of the region, where the designation “Arab” is meant to disguise that there is no unified Arab nation, but rather Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Maronites, Alawites, Kurds, Greek Orthodox, as well as Jews. Often these sects are at war with each other in various levels of intensity within what are now state borders, like Iraq or Lebanon. The French and British are blamed for the way they drew the post-World War I borders, but these accusations ignore the fact that all borders in the Middle East have always been random and malleable, depending on factors like conquest and population transfers, some voluntary and others not. For all the Middle East rhetoric about land as a birthright, the people of the region know when it’s time to go—because the land will no longer support them or some greater power is threatening to wipe them out.

Right now it is Middle East Christians who are leaving Iraq and Lebanon, but they won’t be the last. Consider the Druze, a sect that started in Egypt in the 11th century and moved to the Levant—Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, where their population is largest. Lebanon’s Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt believes that the sect’s time there is running out; Lebanon will be left to the Sunnis and Shiites to fight over, and eventually they will draw their own borders. The same will happen in Iraq, and perhaps much sooner, as the country is partitioned, while the Kurds will go their own way as soon as they believe they can weather likely wars with the Turks and Persians. Someday Alawi rule in Syria will come to an end, and if they’re lucky this minority sect considered heretical by the Sunnis will break away in time to the Mediterranean coast, where they’ve carved out an escape hatch state for themselves. The East Bankers of Jordan know that the West Bankers, the Palestinians, will outnumber them someday and Jordan will become either part or the whole of Palestine. In other words, Israel’s foreign minister is the one man in the Middle East who is publicly discussing an issue that everyone else in the region is also confronting in the wake of the Iraqi war—internal sectarian conflict where one side threatens to topple the political order. For example, despite the rhetoric of resistance, Hezbollah’s war with Israel on behalf of Iran and Syria that threatens to destroy the Lebanese state is no less treason than Azmi Bishara’s selling information to Damascus. The Arab regimes, regardless of their public criticism of the oath and Lieberman, are watching closely, because Israel’s treatment of the issue may well shape how they deal with their own sectarian issues—or at least we can hope they learn from Jerusalem rather than Saddam, who laid waste to Iraqi Shia and Kurds.

The choice the Israelis face is maybe not so tough, after all. And even if it is tough, so what? What Frenchman thinks that it is inherently part of his national identity to be fearful of war with Germany? And yet for reasons of geography, ethnicity, and history, it has been so. It would be nice if Palestinians wanted to make peace with Israel on terms that allowed for Israel’s secure existence as a Jewish state, but the recent historical record and regional dynamics offer little assurance that such a blessed day is coming anytime soon. If Zionism must not allow for transferring Arabs or ruling over them, then is it about Jews picking up and leaving when a Jewish state in the Middle East doesn’t look exactly like local democracy in Vermont? Based on the historical evidence, the Jews of Israel will continue to try their hardest to appease U.S. policymakers—hopefully led by those, like Avigdor Lieberman, who understand what it takes to maintain their national existence in the region where they have made their home.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.