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Israel alone travelled the opposite path. The Jewish nation predated the modern state by more than three millennia. Its investment in nation-building was made long ago; all that remained to create in the 20th century were the institutions of a modern state. While hardly trivial, that task is far, far easier than nation-building. In 1948, the Jewish state of Israel became the region’s sole successful exercise in  minority ethnic self-determination.

None of the Arab states recognised the Jews’ right to self-determination in land they considered rightfully Arab. Five Arab armies invaded western Palestine the moment Israel declared its independence. By the time the dust settled along armistice lines in 1949, the geographic region that had been Palestine was split in four. In addition to the pre-existing Sunni Arab state of Jordan, the new Jewish state controlled the Galilee, a narrow central coastal plain, and the Negev desert. Egypt occupied the tiny but densely populated Gaza Strip. Jordan occupied — and annexed — the historic Jewish heartland of Judaea and Samaria. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people began a reconfiguration of the territory’s demographics.

That demographic shift continued into the early 1950s, as nearly every Arab state exiled its Jews in the first half of a classic post-colonial population exchange that has yet to reach its stabilising conclusion. Israel addressed that half by integrating all Jewish arrivals and extending citizenship to non-Jewish residents. The UN arrested the other half with a unique, creative, and ultimately disastrous approach seemingly designed to perpetuate instability: it defined a new nation of stateless “Palestine refugees” comprised of all displaced non-Jews who had lived in western Palestine during a narrow two-year window — and their patrilineal descendants. It then established a permanent agency, UNRWA, whose sole responsibility was catering to the members of this newborn stateless nation, and ensuring that its charges remained perpetually stateless.

70 years and several Arab-Israeli wars later, Gaza, Judaea and Samaria remain disputed territories. Israel gained control over them in 1967, ceded partial control to a Palestinian Authority (PA) — a relabelling designed to give the terrorist PLO a clean start — created under the Oslo Accords of 1993, and withdrew entirely from Gaza in 2005. Meanwhile, UNRWA’s count of Palestine refugees has grown from 750,000 to five million. Because a majority of them remain in the region, and Jordan remains the sole Arab state to have accorded any of them citizenship, these stateless Palestine refugees are a constant contributor to tension, instability and terrorism — in the region and around the world.

All told, the familiar statist view of the Middle East that dominated the 20th century collapsed in the 21st. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq may exist as internationally recognised states on a map, but neither they nor Palestine have ever existed as nations. Jordan clings tenuously to both halves of its nation state designation. Only the Jewish state of Israel is secure in both its nationhood and its statehood. In today’s Levant, ancient national identities — Jewish, Christian, Sunni Arab, Shiite, Kurd, Druze, Alawite — enjoy the respect and allegiance of their people. The states remain relevant only because of diplomats and academics.
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Lawrence James
September 5th, 2018
9:09 AM
The baleful history of the Balkan states after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the greater Serbia created in 1918-1919 suggest the history of the nation states in the Middle East will be unhappy. Whatever their faults, the British and French administrations in the Levant, Palestine and Egypt kept their inhabitants from each other's throats and dampened down religious antipathies.

Mitch S.
April 5th, 2018
11:04 PM
Excellent article pointing out the folly of the Western "statist" approach to the Middle East. But before looking to nationalism as a road to cease fires and peace, it's important to consider the influence of religion in the area. Yes Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia etc, but they are still united in the belief in Islam's need to dominate especially in the greater Middle East (the "Ummah"). So secularists such as Nasser and Sadaam Hussein along with religious hardliners such as the Iranian Ayatollahs, saw ending the Jewish state as a vital act that would bring them power and prestige in the Mid-East and throughout the Muslim world. Even looking at the "nation-state" of Israel, the influence of religion must be kept in mind. The Jewish nation settled in Israel because of the religion's 2000 plus year dream of "the promised land". Secular imperial ambitions don't have that staying power. The Jews aren't imperialists because the religion is focused on the land of Israel with no aspiration for greater conquest. Still, religion has had an affect on the secular state's policy. Religious Jews don't look toward taking over Jordan or Egypt but there are religious Jewish groups who see it as forbidden to give up parts of the "Holy land" once Jews are in control. So taking Jews from parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and putting them in non-Jewish hands is something they strongly oppose, making such a deal more politically difficult (though I believe those groups don't have the power to stop such a deal on their own). Indeed the death of Yitschok Rabin can be seen as a result of religious passion rather than a purely political act. So what could possibly create conditions for some kind of peace? I agree the nation state is a good route but the religious imperative will have to be held in check. One possibility is accepting a view that world domination is the ultimate goal - but not for the current life. It is only something to be achieved after divine intervention. Just as Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and Christians in the return of Jesus. In fact there is a small minority of Jews that believe the return to the Holy Land is only for messianic times and they oppose the current Jewish state. This would be the best possible way and while I hardly have the knowledge of Islam to speak with any authority, I have heard this is an approach some Muslims accept. The other, and perhaps prerequisite step would be to remove the religious obligation to drive the Jews out of Israel (or subjugate them) by making it seem impossible. I don't know how much is Arab practicality or Islamic doctrine but when Israel is seen as an undefeatable the door opens for negotiation. When Israel is put under pressure and appears vulnerable negotiations end. This is another thing Western states continually misunderstand. Israel's ties to the West, especially the United States are seen as a vital part of it's defensive power by the Arab world. When Western leaders try to create an atmosphere for peace by holding back support of Israel and reaching out to hardline regimes such as Iran it raises the possibility that Israel may not be invulnerable and there may be a religious obligation to pursue it's destruction

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