Does Israel prefer peace with authoritarians?

Jerusalem works based on shared interests, not based on promoting democracy or ideals.

NO OTHER area in the world has so many complex conflicts than the Middle East (photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)
NO OTHER area in the world has so many complex conflicts than the Middle East
(photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)
In the wake of the announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates are normalizing relations, one line of critique about the agreement has been that both countries are authoritarian regimes, or that Israel prefers to only sign agreements with monarchies and dictatorships in the region.
This argument has a serious flaw because historically, it has been the Arab nationalist dictatorship regimes that have posed the most extensive threat to Israel and been the most hostile, from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt to the Assad regime in Syria to Saddam Hussein when he ruled Iraq. Authoritarian regimes from Iran and Turkey to Hamas in Gaza are implacable foes of Israel.
This line of critique has been advanced by some voices on the Left, others who are pro-Turkey, pro-Iran or pro-Qatar,and still others in the Middle East who oppose the Israel-UAE deal for a variety of reasons.
 For instance, Matt Duss, an adviser to Bernie Sanders, tweeted that “all this does today is give cover to Israel’s ongoing theft of Palestinian land, burnish the reputation of an authoritarian UAE government, and provide Trump a shiny object to wave around.”
A Twitter account that claims to be the official account of the BDS movement, which urges a boycott of Israel, has slammed the UAE in the past for being “authoritarian.” As the deal was announced, a Twitter account that says it supports Palestinian rights said that “authoritarian regimes sideline Palestinians.”
Former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes has slammed Israel for being authoritarian. An article at the Conversationalist argued that the deal was a “triumph for authoritarianism.” In addition, the pro-government Turkish media outlet Anadolu published an article on August 15, arguing that the UAE-Israel deal is “against democracy” in the Middle East. The Nation in Pakistan reprinted the article.
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, also argued that the UAE-Israel deal was a “reminder of why Israel, one of the region’s few democracies, prefers that its Arab neighbors not be democratic.” Hamid has argued that the US should “keep Arab autocrats, even the most ‘pro-American’ ones, at arm’s length.”
He argued on August 20 that “the US and Israel have worked against democratization in the Middle East, in part because democracies, since they have to reflect public sentiment, are less likely to seek normalization with Israel.”
TO UNDERSTAND the argument suggesting that Israel prefers authoritarian regimes – or that the current Trump administration’s push to help an agreement between the Emirates and Israel is some kind of authoritarian-regime alliance – would suggest that Israel, the UAE and perhaps the US are somehow less democratic than other states that might oppose normalization.
If one compares a map of countries that Israel has diplomatic relations with – a map by the group Freedom House, which rates whether countries are free or not – one finds that Israel almost exclusively has relations with democracies and freer states. It lacks diplomatic relations with a whole swath of countries in the Arab and Islamic world, from Pakistan to Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and others. In general, Israel’s relations are with countries labeled free or partially free.
However, in the Middle East, where most countries are labeled not free, Israel’s relations are with Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Only Jordan is seen as “partially free” by the group. Ankara has become more and more authoritarian, but historically, Turkey and Israel were two of the few democracies in the region. This appears to indicate that when it comes to Israel achieving diplomatic relations, it has had only dictatorships to choose from.
One argument contends that Israel prefers dictatorships because average people across the region oppose relations with the Jewish state. However, in large part, they oppose relations with Israel after seven decades or more of having education systems in authoritarian regimes that taught them to dislike Israel.
A plethora of regimes in the region used anti-Israel and even antisemitic propaganda to unite and distract their populaces against Israel as a way to justify their regime control. For instance, when groups, such as the Kurds in places like Iraq, appeared more open to Israel, they were accused of being a “second Israel” or a pro-Israel “dagger” pointing at the Arab world.
Populists, such as Turkey’s regime, use anti-Israel rallies to encourage ethnic nationalism. They recently even used anti-Israel views to fan religious nationalism, arguing that the consecration of a mosque in Hagia Sophia was a step to “liberating al-Aqsa.”
Iran’s Quds Day and the “arc of resistance” use the excuse of “fighting Israel” to justify oppression and extra-legal militias, such as Hezbollah. Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen, for example, have an official slogan saying, “Death to Israel; curse the Jews.”
This means that demagogues, religious extremists and dictatorial regimes, such as the Assads in Syria, used opposition to Israel as a way to entrench themselves. When more liberal and open-minded voices have supported peace with Israel in places such as Syria and Iraq – or even in Gaza and the West Bank – they have been harassed or even killed for supporting “normalization.”
None of this seems to show that anti-Israel views are part of “democratization.” On the contrary, a more democratic polity tends to have more diverse voices about Israel.
IN RECENT years, the region has shifted a bit in this respect. Whereas during the 1950s a series of nationalist revolutionary military regimes emerged that opposed Israel, in the 1980s, the Iranian revolution added a religious element to opposition to Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood and extremists also emerged in Sunni countries that fanned the flames of antisemitism. These views were written into the Hamas charter.
A shift in the 1990s led to limited and increased democratization in the region. This included elections in Lebanon, Iran and Algeria and even rigged elections in places such as Egypt. Most countries in the region adopted a veneer of democracy. When democracy went against the regime, it tended to be brutally suppressed. The US Bush administration supported democratization in the region, including in the Palestinian Authority and Iraq.
However, there are some of the examples in which democratization led to more anti-Israel views. Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian legislative elections and the victory of pro-Iran parties in Iraq led to more hostility toward the Jewish state. At the same time, the rise of the AK Party in Ankara led Turkey to become one of the most anti-Israel countries in the region.
The rise of Hamas, the AK Party and groups such as Badr and Dawa in Iraq were all authoritarian in nature. Turkey is now the world’s largest jailer of journalists, imprisoning people for critiquing the government on social media. Hamas has run a one-party dictatorship in Gaza, backed by Qatar and Turkey, since 2006. That shows that anti-Israel views are also tied to authoritarianism.
The accusation that Israel aligns with the more “reactionary” or authoritarian regimes derives from a post-Arab Spring analysis. Jerusalem was perceived as being nonplussed by the rise of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 in Egypt. Israel is believed to be much closer to the country’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi government today.
In addition, Jordan under the monarchy has cracked down on some dissent, which tends to be anti-Israel, even though the monarchy is also officially critical of the Jewish state.
There were also accusations that Israel preferred the Assad regime’s anti-Israel stability to the emergence of a chaotic state in Syria. That accusation is not backed up by reality, since there are a plethora of voices in Israel who supported the Syrian rebels, and Jerusalem provided aid to Syrian rebel areas during the conflict.
THE “REACTIONARY” narrative continues, however, because Turkey and Qatar have embraced a façade of supporting Islamic democracy against UAE-backed groups. This is not really a battle between democracies and authoritarians in the region, but rather two types of authoritarianism, led either by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Iranian regime or Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and its allies, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan, and Libya’s Khalifa Haftar are autocracies. Their enemies are also authoritarian. For instance, Iran’s regime murdered more than 3,000 protesters last year, and pro-Iranian groups killed hundreds of protesters over the last year and have assassinated commentators, liberals and dissenters, such as Hisham al-Hashimi in Iraq.
Israel certainly prefers stable countries that can guarantee peace over countries that fall into civil war and are infiltrated by Iranian-backed threats or jihadist-extremist ones. This means Israel prefers the Jordanian monarchy to the chaos of the 1970s in Jordan when Palestinian militant groups tried to take over the state. Similarly, Palestinian groups and Hezbollah have undermined Lebanon and threatened Israel, both today and in the past. These are not democratic groups, but authoritarians.
Israel works with Gulf countries on shared interests. These interests are not about promoting democracy or authoritarianism, but about working with common friends on issues of mutual concern, such as Greece. For instance, Jerusalem has found no more support in democratic Tunisia than in dictatorial Syria.
There is ample evidence that average Iranians are not as anti-Israel as the regime and that Kurdish groups tend to be more open to Israel than the authoritarian regimes under which they are forced to live. That the average voter in Jordan, Ramallah or Egypt might support warmer relations with Israel also is likely a reality.
But all this does not provide a simple answer to the authoritarian question. What it does illustrate is that in a complex region, Israel sometimes can work with authoritarians and democrats, usually based on shared interests or shared enemies, rather than a simple reading of democratic or authoritarian values.