Counter-revolutionary? A closer look at Israel’s relationship with Arab autocrats

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Tel Aviv has been tricky to keep its undemocratic neighborhood and the balance of power in its favour, writes Jonathan Hoffman.

The flags of the United Arab Emirates and Israel fly at Expo 2020 Dubai in the gulf emirate on January 31, 2022. [Getty]

Israel’s burgeoning relations with various autocratic Arab regimes represent one of the most significant developments in the modern Middle East.

Although these high-level relations have broadened considerably over more than two decades, they have evolved from largely behind-the-scenes cooperation to more open forms of coordination, particularly in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings and culminating in the ” Abraham Accords” of 2020, originally signed between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, then expanded to include Morocco and Sudan.

The overwhelming focus of analyzes aimed at understanding these relationships has above all underlined how shared geopolitical objectives have brought these actors together, especially after 2011. Whether it is to counter common adversaries such as Iran or Islamist political movements, to maintain US engagement in the region or maintaining the regional balance of power, most observers see these rapprochements as high-level and from above. through the prism of geopolitics.

“Understanding this shared desire of both Tel Aviv and various Arab regimes to maintain the regional authoritarian status quo is key to understanding the full significance of these relationships.

While the lens of realpolitik certainly captures critical elements of these relationships, they go beyond mere geopolitics: there is a strong normative component rooted in a counter-revolutionary philosophy shared among those actors who consider democracy – everywhere in the region – as an anathema to their own survival.

In the period following the Arab uprisings, Israel engaged alongside its regional partners in a sophisticated campaign of counter-revolution aimed not only at preserving the regional balance of power, but also at preventing the emergence of a popular democratic paradigm in the Middle East. . Understanding this shared desire of both Tel Aviv and various Arab regimes to maintain the regional authoritarian status quo is key to understanding the full significance of these relationships.

Israel presents itself as a haven for democracy in a “tough neighborhood” of authoritarianism and inherent violence and backwardness. For example, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once said, “we [Israel] live in the 20th century, they [Arabs] in the fifteenth,” and pointed out that Israel represents a “modern society…in the midst of a medieval world.”

A similar message was echoed by Israel’s former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who often referred to the country as a “villa in the jungle” and an “oasis fortress in the desert” to describe Israel’s relationship with Israel. its Arab neighbours. In his book “A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World”, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that “violence is pervasive in the political life of all Arab countries. This is the main method of dealing with opponents, both foreign and foreign”. domestic, both Arab and non-Arab.

As Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has previously argued, such a worldview has “translated into a geostrategic conception” in which the Zionist state is “permanently locked in an alliance with the West against the East. ” back ” “. All this despite the fact that Israel’s status as a democracy is widely debated, with several prominent human rights organizations, among others, calling the Jewish state and the Palestinian territories it apartheid regime control.

Despite the rhetoric adopted by its leaders, Israel has opposed democratic transitions in the Middle East and takes advantage of the lack of democracy in the region. Israel is a status quo power in the Middle East and heavily dependent on maintaining undemocratic governments in the region. Even some staunch American supporters of Israel recognize this, as Robert Kagan argued after the 2013 military coup that toppled a democratically elected government in Egypt. “For Israel, which has never supported democracy anywhere in the Middle East except in Israel,” he wrote, “the presence of a brutal military dictatorship bent on exterminating Islamism is not only tolerable but desirable”.

Israel fears that popular governments in the region accountable to their people will be more demanding in the fight for Palestinian rights and a genuine settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arab public opinion remains firmly attached to the plight of the Palestinians. Although the 2011 uprisings were spurred by demands for political, social and economic justice primarily focused on the national level, the symbolism of Palestine was often displayed during these protests.

This symbolism continues to be expressed in protests within the region, particularly following the series of “normalization” agreements in recent years. Tel Aviv is therefore opposed to the emergence of democratic governments in the region and the challenges this could pose to its maintenance of control over the occupied Palestinian territories, and relies on partner Arab autocrats to quell such sentiment.

Neighboring Egypt and Jordan, both of which have peace treaties with Tel Aviv, are of particular concern to Israel. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and borders the Gaza Strip, while Jordan is ruled by a Hashemite minority over a majority Palestinian population and borders the West Bank. If genuine democracies were to emerge in these countries, they could play a much greater role in promoting Palestinian rights.

Israel also takes advantage of the lack of democratic governance in the region when trying to rally outside support. By portraying itself as constantly on the defensive in a “tough neighborhood,” Tel Aviv is able to project a lasting image of victimhood to its Western supporters. Moreover, by portraying itself as a lonely, beleaguered Western outpost, Israel aims to present itself as the most – perhaps the only – regional state actor capable of working with Western democracies.

If other Middle Eastern countries were able to establish themselves as functioning democracies, they could prove to be attractive new partners for Western states in the region and compete with Israel for support.

It is in this context that Israel interpreted the 2011 Arab uprisings and their aftermath. Israel has worked simultaneously with various Arab regimes to maintain autocratic control over the Middle East, which in turn supports Tel Aviv’s rule over the occupied Palestinian territories.

At the start of the uprisings, this was evidenced by the rhetoric of various Israeli officials such as the then Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, who stated that “these leaders [autocrats] as much as they were not accepted by their people, they were very responsible for regional stability… They are much more comfortable [to us] than peoples or streets in the same countries. Similarly, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Arab uprisings as an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave.”

In the 11 years since those comments, Israel’s relations with other counterrevolutionary actors, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and others, have grown exponentially for include extensive diplomatic, economic, and military collaboration, the provision of sophisticated surveillance technologies, and increasingly coordinated efforts to pressure Washington for their agendas.

The so-called “Abraham Accords” should be seen as a continuation of these efforts by creating a more formal coalition of anti-democratic actors, eagerly backed by the United States, as Washington seeks to pivot toward Indo-Pacific.

“The so-called ‘Abraham Accords’ should be seen as a continuation of these efforts by creating a more formal coalition of anti-democratic actors”

More recently, Israel has cultivated its ties with would-be autocrats, such as Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and his son Saddam Haftar, as well as Sudanese general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan who seized power in a coup. State last year. These efforts go beyond mere geopolitics and are aimed at a broader counter-revolutionary alliance that seeks to assert its dominance over the Middle East.

The United States has enthusiastically supported these counter-revolutionary actors by supplying them with advanced weapons and turning a blind eye to their human rights abuses. Despite Biden’s campaign promise to put human rights at the heart of his foreign policy, this same pattern has continued virtually unabated.

The continued US support for this coalition – rooted in what is often called the “authoritarian stability myth” – only serves to exacerbate the main source of grievances that underlie the region’s problems. : the autocrats themselves.

Jonathan Hoffman is a doctoral candidate in political science at the SCHAR School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He holds an MA in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and a BA in Global Affairs. His work has been featured in Middle East Policy, Open Democracy, The Cipher Brief and other platforms. His research focuses on the geopolitics of the Middle East and political Islam.

This article originally appeared on Responsible Statecraft.

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The views expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or its staff.

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