Commenting on the role the sovereign nation-state plays in the western world compared with the Islamic world, the late Samuel P. Huntington, in his classic study The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, wrote: “The structure of political loyalty among Arabs and among Muslims generally has been the opposite of that in the modern West. For the latter the nation state has been the apex of political loyalty.”
He went on to note that “the idea of sovereign nation states is incompatible with belief in the sovereignty of Allah and the primacy of the ummah.”
Thus, while in the West the concept of the sovereign nation state has enormous importance and the idea of loyalty to some larger Pan-Anglo western nation has no relevance, the situation is exactly the opposite in the Islamic world.
It’s interesting to consider the Jewish perspective on this. Jews share with Muslims an appreciation for the concept of a broader nation – Am Yisrael – while at the same time we identify with the western emphasis on the significance of the sovereign nation state – the modern state of Israel.
But just how much sovereignty does Israel really have on a political level, and how is sovereignty perceived by the average Israeli?
On the national political level, Israel certainly has some degree of sovereignty. Unlike the situation 2,000 years ago, when the Jews of Judea were physically living under Roman rule, Israel today has its own governing institutions – parliament, court system, army, etc. Moreover, Israel maintains diplomatic, cultural, and economic relations with countries throughout the world, participates in a variety of international forums, is a member of the United Nations, etc.
Despite the outer appearance of full Israeli sovereignty, however, the past 15 or 20 years have actually told a different story. In a progressively more blatant manner, the upper echelon of Israel’s political leadership has more or less made clear, in both word and action, that Israel must do as America says, regardless of whether it’s perceived as being beneficial for the Jewish state.
Whether it’s Israel’s response to Palestinian acts of terror, the nature and length of wars in Lebanon and Gaza or the sale of military equipment to China, the deciding factor always comes down to whether Israel has a green light from America. Similarly, the idea that Israel must work toward the creation of a Palestinian state, despite the obvious dangers to Israel the existence of such a state would pose, has become more of a consensus view with each passing day simply because that is what America wants.
For a number of reasons, chiefly economic and political, Israel’s leaders are extremely hesitant to go against the will of the U.S. They fear the consequences of crossing the world’s sole superpower, even one that is losing some of its dominance. And while much of that fear may be justified, it calls into question the whole notion of whether Israel has true political sovereignty.
An example of this phenomenon was visible in last month’s Israeli elections. Rather than seriously address the issues and problems that concern most Israeli voters, each of the leading candidates invested considerable time in trying to prove he or she would work better with President Obama.
Obviously there is nothing wrong with having good relations with the U.S. and its president. But when this becomes a central issue in an Israeli national election, Israel’s status as a sovereign nation state becomes suspect.
Clearly, true political sovereignty is something most Israelis consider unrealistic, if they even think about it at all. But it would seem the time has come for Israelis to start thinking about the concept in a more serious manner. The world is changing and America, while still a superpower, is seeing its influence increasingly challenged by powers such as China and Russia – a state of affairs that will surely affect America’s relations with many countries in the world, including Israel.
Moreover, it’s safe to assume that as the U.S. pursues policies its leaders see as being in the country’s best interests in a changing world, at least some of those policies will be detrimental to Israel. Obviously it would be foolish to blame America for this since American officials must, rightly, worry first and foremost about the needs of their own country. That’s the role and function of any truly sovereign state.