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Mediterranean Quarterly 11.4 (2000) 84-97

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Neutrality and Coexistence in the Middle East

Dan Vittorio Segre

At the core of the Middle East conflict is the Arabs' difficulty in accepting the existence of a non-Arab, non-Muslim polity in their midst. To date, all Arab attempts to oppose--or at least contain--the territorial, demographic, and economic expansion of Israel have failed. Might there be a way to extricate both Jews and Arabs from their quandary? Is it possible to conceive of a situation in which Israel could become a peaceful component of the Middle East game in spite of its singularity? This essay suggests that such a situation could emerge if both sides perceived the advantages of transforming Israel into a sort of neutral state.

Neutrality is a legal status denoting the abstention of a state from participating in conflicts between other states and an attitude of impartiality toward belligerents, unless attacked. 1 Such a status, unfortunately, has proved to be obsolete in most contemporary international relations. It was abandoned a long time ago by the United States and has seldom been respected in wartime--as the case of Belgium in 1914 well shows.

A number of reasons make neutrality anachronistic: militarily, it has become impossible for neutral states to provide for their own security due to cost and the range of modern weaponry; politically, neutrality may be inconsistent with the collective security obligations of the United Nations Charter; economically, it clashes with world trends of globalization and interdependence. Furthermore, neutrality in its strictest sense and by nature is [End Page 84] temporary. To speak of neutrality in the context of the Middle East, in particular when considering Israel and Palestine, may sound like an exercise in futility, given that the region suffers from an excess of history and a unique geography. If so, is it not preposterous to suggest--as I do in this essay--that neutrality may be a valid working hypothesis for the solution of the Middle East crisis? Perhaps not.

There are a number of reasons that make neutrality--or a serious discussion of it--at least an original approach and one that might promote new institutional wisdom. First, neutrality might influence in a constructive way both the foreign and internal politics of Israel. As I will argue, neutrality is inborn in Jewish political culture. Therefore it should at least be given serious consideration by religious supporters of territorial expansionism both in Israel and among the Diaspora. Its advantages should equally be examined by those secular Israelis who oppose expansion. The concept of Jewish "aloofness" is contained in the Scriptures (which warn against reliance of Jews on power politics and on foreign alliances for the safety of their nation). There is also the contemporary Jewish conviction that a state of the Jews is and will remain out of sync with other nations for historical and tribal reasons.

I am aware of the fact that discussing the Old Testament's relevance to modern Israeli politics--as I have done elsewhere 2 --encounters a major obstacle. Contemporary political theory, not to speak of anti-Zionist literature, usually refers to Jews as members of a religion, not of a nation. The political institutions of the ancient Jewish states, the social structures of the Talmudic and post-Talmudic Diaspora, and the more or less autonomous Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and of the Ottoman Empire were all considered either politically irrelevant institutions or medieval anachronisms. This view, however, has begun to change due to the work of political scientists like the late professor Daniel Elazar, who have described the wealth of Jewish political culture and its relevance to contemporary Israeli and Diaspora power systems. 3 [End Page 85]

A second reason for the relevance of neutrality to the Arab-Israeli conflict is that it implies a willingness to accept internationally recognized institutions of power sharing and self-control. Thus it would call for the promotion of political moderation both within the neutral state and between that state and its neighbors, an important factor for the Middle East conflict in...


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