The Holy Land may be the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- the three Abrahamic faiths that share much in common -- but Israel has preferred to draw on a tradition that imagines the region in terms of a clash of civilizations.
Theodor Herzl, the father of Israel's national ideology, Zionism, averred that a Jewish state should act as "a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism." On this view, Israel is on the fault line between a Judeo-Christian west and the barbarian hordes of the Islamic east.
The idea of a clash has played out most obviously in Israel's repeated wars against its Arab neighbors, its threatening posture towards Iran, and its interminable occupation of Palestinian territority -- heavily subsidised both directly and indirectly by the United States and Europe.
But Israel also wanted to exploit this model inside its own territory, among its citizens. Decades of institutional and systematic discrimination and internal repression of its 1.5 million Palestinians who have citizenship have been justified to the Jewish majority in these terms.
This is the context for understanding the announcement this month by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, of what is being called innocuously a "forum" between the government and Israel's Christian Palestinians.
Its troubling goal is to end the exemption Christians in Israel have enjoyed from serving in the military.
On a practical level, Mr Netanyahu hopes that Christians can help enforce Israel's illegal occupation of their kin in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. But this move is not really about swelling the army's ranks.
Both Christians and Muslims are excluded from Israel's military service. Individuals can seek a waiver on this exclusion and each year a few do so: around two dozen among Christian Palestinians and small numbers of Muslims, mostly from the Bedouin community.
If Christians are made to serve, they will join Israel's tiny Druze community, which has been conscripted since the 1950s. That will then leave only the largest section of Palestinian citizens -- Muslims -- excluded.
The role of the Druze is illustrative. They have few benefits to show for decades of army service, even though Israel has treated them as a national group separate from other Palestinian citizens. They even have their own school system to inculcate beliefs that the Druze and Jews are historic allies.
Keen to prove their loyalty to the state, the Druze are much feared in the occupied territories, where they are seen as even more brutal than their Jewish comrades.
If Mr. Netanyahu succeeds, he will achieve an important task, reversing the long-term commitment of Christians and Muslims in Israel to unity. The two communities have set up joint political institutions and secular parties that cut across the sectarian divide.
In recent years their identity as Palestinians has strengthened -- not least because Israel has defined the core Israeli identity in terms of belonging to the Jewish people.
Mr. Netanyahu would rather turn the clock back to the 1950s when the native population were known simply as "the minorities," and expected to identify as sectarian groups. The aim was to exploit these differences to keep each sect weak, isolated and, ideally, feuding.
Now Mr. Netanyahu sees a chance to use military service as a vehicle for implementing a policy of divide and rule.
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