Friday, October 22, 2010

New citizenship law in Israel: Another issue of discord

The Daily Star, October 23rd., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

Israel's Cabinet by a vote of 22-8 recommended a bill to amend Israel's citizenship law that would require non-Jewish new citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state. The amendment will become law after it is passed by a simple majority in parliament and Israel's Supreme Court accepts it; both expected to come without any hassle. The amendment, aimed at Israel's Arab population, has been widely condemned as a racist policy among Israel's Arab neighbours. Turkish Prime Minister whose country recognizes Israel said that no one can impose citizenship law the way Israel has done with this new law. Syrian President Bashir al Asad has condemned the new law as fascist and racist.

The new law will for the time being affect only a very small number of people; those from the occupied territories who marry Arab Israelis. That notwithstanding, the new law that requires an oath saying Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state, brings into question fundamental contradiction between religion and democracy; whether a religious or theocratic state can be democratic. There are more serious dangers lurking behind the law looking into the future. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann who is the force behind the new law expects the new law to be applied to all Arab Israelis, one fifth of the population, eventually who would be asked to take oath under the new law and their citizenship revoked, if they refuse to do so.

The religious extremists in the Cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu have taken advantage of the current status of Israel-PLO talks that has stalled over the settlement issue to push this new controversial legislation. They have agreed to extend the moratorium on settlement that is crucial to carry the peace talks forward. The US President in his September 23rd address at the UN said that peace would be established in ME in a year. The US is thus putting a great deal of pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister not to allow the peace talks on the settlement issue. The legislation on citizenship is thus possibly the outcome of a deal between the Prime Minister, willing to please the US by carrying forward the peace process, and religious fundamentalists in the Prime Minister's coalition not willing to extend the freeze on settlement.

The citizenship law will ultimately carry forward the peace process. But the law acknowledges certain principles or the lack of it that have embedded in it the seeds of future conflicts that could be much more serious than those that are stalling the peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. First, it is taking away freedom of 20% of the population of Israel who are not Jews but Muslims. Taking oath as citizen of Israel as a Jewish state would take away the religious freedom of the non-Jews of the state of Israel by forcing them to take up religious obligations of another religion. Second, it is intended to target the non-Jews or Arabs in Israel and impose upon them conditions and obligations that are, under the UN Charter of Human Rights, unacceptable. Third, the law will turn Israel from being a homeland for Jewish people to becoming a Jewish state in the religious sense; thus destroying its secular character, totally. Finally, the Arab population in Israel and their ancestors who have been living for millenniums in what is now Israel would now be forced to live as citizens by the conditions set by Jewish migrants who came to the region from Europe and elsewhere after 1948!

The nature of demography of Israel where its Arab population is growing faster than its Jewish population will mean that in the future the difference between the two will close creating a dangerous prescription for explosion. A new system of apartheid is in the process of being created in Israel right under the nose of the world with the US supervising it in the name of establishing peace in the region!

It is incredible that Israel is allowed to get away with its acts such as the citizenship law and many others like the attack on the Turkish flotilla a few months ago. At a time when barriers are falling all over the world, the Israelis have caged the Palestinians on the land locked West Bank, cutting them off from their livelihood; subjecting them to economic deprivation. While in possession of a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons that for some strange reasons is, with US and Western indulgence, taboo even for discussion, Israel urges the US regularly to attack Iran so that it cannot build nuclear weapons! In the ongoing violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, where the Palestinians are fighting for their right of self determination and where many more of them are getting killed than the Israelis in the process, the western sympathy seems to be with those killing more and occupying land illegally with contempt. Such is the impact of the West dominated media that today after years of sustained propaganda for Israel, people have forgotten that the Palestinians are fighting for freedom. The victim has today become the accused!

The new citizenship law has been condemned even in Israel by its liberals. Yitzhak Herzog, a labour member of the Israeli parliament, has said on Israel radio “that there is a whiff of fascism on the margins of Israeli society”. An Israeli writer Isaac Herzog disagreed with Yitzhak and said that fascism in Israeli society is no longer in the margins; it has now come into the mainstream. Surprisingly, the new citizenship law has not evoked reaction from those who matter in what happens in the region eventually. There has been no reaction officially to the new citizenship law from the US administration. President Obama wants this to appease extremists like the Israeli Foreign Minister and encourage them to extend the moratorium on settlement to bring the PLO back to the negotiating table.

The new citizenship law has sinister designs. Israeli Arabs think that this is designed to ultimately throw them out of Israel. It is a clear hint that Israel is firmly in the hands of extremists who have little or no desire for peace with Palestine. They may extend the moratorium on settlements and carry the peace negotiations only to get the concession on the citizenship law that Prime Minister Netanyahu would not have otherwise agreed to give not because he does not want to but because he has reasons to please President Obama. With such elements on the Israeli side in the negotiating team, it would be futile to expect that there would be any positive outcome of the current peace talks between Israel and Palestine. One wonders if President Obama is being utterly naïve in publicly declaring in his September 23rd speech in the United Nations that he expected peace talks to end successfully in a year's time.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

No comments: