During the last few years of popular uprisings in the Arab world, leading Western countries have repeatedly made it clear that they want to see a certain type of political and social order rise from the ashes of authoritarian regimes that have been toppled, or are faced with the threat of collapse.
Officials from Western states have been fairly consistent in their rhetoric. They have spoken of the need for many things for the Middle East to be up to their standards. They want to see stability, and they want to see new systems of government based on several principles that are of paramount importance: democracy, rotation of power and diversity. Whenever the words “Islamic state” are uttered in the region, many Western officials and opinion-makers automatically feel a sense of unease. They, or a legion of commentators and analysts, can be expected to express their reservations about such an objective. Officials might use diplomatic language, as they express concerns about the status of minorities, and personal freedoms in a religious state. Others, meanwhile, will be much harsher – they will talk about how religion is incompatible with democracy, as the entire notion by definition involves a violation of fundamentally important principles.
Therefore, it was jarring to see a Middle East leader Sunday declare the need to enshrine religion as the basis of politics, and generate no fallout and outrage in Western capitals. The leader in question, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was giving a speech at a university in Tel Aviv, and he spoke adamantly about how Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. However, no Western leaders issued statements of concern about these divisive, worrying remarks. Apparently, enshrining a country as a state based on religion is permitted to one group in the region, but not the rest. There were no statements of worry about the fate of religious minorities in a Jewish state, and whether they would feel themselves to be second-class citizens. There were no human rights groups expressing outrage about the lack of freedom or respect for liberties.
Even though Palestinians have said time and time again that they reject recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, short-sighted politicians like Netanyahu continue to trot out their objectionable, worrying demands. But the speech did have some impact, it should be noted. It was described as “probably the best speech by Netanyahu as prime minister” – by a former leader of the settler movement. At a time in which the Arab world is in turmoil, and there is stepped-up U.S. pressure on Israel to move forward in their dysfunctional negotiations process, the best Netanyahu could come up with is a hard-line rhetoric directed squarely at his hard-line base of support, with nothing of any political value for the Palestinians, the side he must engage in dialogue.
Perhaps the many developments in the region are confusing Netanyahu, like Israel in general. This could explain his remarks in an interview with the BBC Persian service, the day before his speech in Tel Aviv, when he said that “if the Iranian people had freedom, they would wear jeans and listen to Western music.”
Iranians quickly took to social media and let Netanyahu know that in fact, they do engage in quite a bit of jeans-wearing and listening to Western music.
In the final analysis, Netanyahu remarked Sunday in Tel Aviv that “the root of the conflict is the Jewish state.” On this point, he was absolutely correct.