Counter-revolutionary? A deeper look at Israel’s relationships with Arab autocrats
Israel’s burgeoning relationships with various autocratic Arab regimes represent one of the most significant developments in the modern Middle East.
Though these high-level connections have been broadening considerably for over two decades, they have evolved from largely behind-the-scenes cooperation to more overt forms of coordination, particularly following the 2011 Arab Uprisings and culminating in the 2020 “Abraham Accords,” originally signed between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, and later expanded to include Morocco and Sudan.
The overwhelming focus of analyses seeking to understand these relationships have emphasized primarily how shared geopolitical objectives have brought these actors together, especially post-2011. Whether it be to counter common adversaries such as Iran or political Islamist movements, to keep the United States deeply engaged in the region, or to maintain the prevailing regional balance of power, the majority of observers view these high-level, top-down rapprochements through the lens of geopolitics.
Though the lens of realpolitik certainly captures critical elements of these relationships, they extend beyond just geopolitics: there is a strong normative component rooted in a shared counterrevolutionary ethos among these actors that views democracy — anywhere in the region — as anathema to their own survival. In the period since the Arab Uprisings, Israel has engaged alongside their regional partners in a sophisticated campaign of counterrevolution designed to not only preserve the prevailing regional balance of power, but to also prevent the emergence of a popular democratic paradigm from appearing in the Middle East. Understanding this shared desire of both Tel Aviv and various Arab regimes to maintain the regional authoritarian status quo is critical to understanding the full scope of these relationships.
Israel presents itself as a haven for democracy within 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 twentieth century, they [Arabs] in the fifteenth,” and stressed that Israel represents a “modern society…in the midst of a medieval world.” A similar message has been echoed by former defense minister of Israel Ehud Barak, who has often referred to the country as “a villa in a jungle” and an “oasis fortress in a desert” to describe Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors. In his book, “A Place Among Nations: Israel and the World,” former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that “violence is ubiquitous in the political life of all Arab countries. It is the primary method of dealing with opponents, both foreign and domestic, both Arab and non-Arab.”
As Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has argued previously, such a worldview has “translated into a geostrategic conception” in which the Zionist state is “permanently locked into an alliance with the West against the ‘backward’ East.” This is all despite the fact that Israel’s status as a democracy is greatly debated, with several prominent human rights organizations among others, labeling the Jewish State and the Palestinian territories it controls an apartheid regime.
Despite the rhetoric espoused by its leaders, Israel has opposed democratic transitions in the Middle East and benefits from the region’s lack of democracy. Israel is a status quo power in the Middle East and relies heavily upon the maintenance of undemocratic governments in the region. Even some staunch U.S. supporters of Israel recognize this, as Robert Kagan argued after the 2013 military coup that ousted a democratically elected government in Egypt. “To Israel, which has never supported democracy anywhere in the Middle East except Israel,” he wrote, “the presence of a brutal military dictatorship bent on the extermination of Islamism is not only tolerable but desirable.”
Israel fears that popular governments in the region accountable to their people would be more demanding in the fight for Palestinian rights and a genuine settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Arab public opinion remains firmly in support of the plight of the Palestinians. Although the 2011 uprisings were spurred by demands for political, social, and economic justice primarily focused at the domestic level, the symbolism of Palestine was often on display during these demonstrations.
This symbolism continues to be expressed in protests within the region, especially following the series of “normalization” deals in the past few years. Tel Aviv is therefore averse to democratic governments emerging in the region and the challenges that could pose to its maintaining control over the occupied Palestinian territories, and relies upon partnered Arab autocrats to suppress such sentiment.
Of particular concern for Israel have been neighboring Egypt and Jordan, both of which hold peace treaties with Tel Aviv. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country and borders the Gaza Strip, while Jordan is ruled by a Hashemite minority over a Palestinian-majority population and borders the West Bank. If genuine democracies were to emerge in these countries, they could play a much more prominent role in the push for Palestinian rights.
Israel also benefits from the lack of democratic governance in the region when attempting to rally external 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 depicting itself as a lonely and beleaguered Western outpost, Israel aims to present itself as the most — perhaps only — regional state actor capable of working with Western democracies. If other countries in the Middle East were able to establish themselves as functioning democracies, they may prove to be attractive new partners for Western states in the region and compete with Israel for their support.
It is within this context that Israel interpreted the 2011 Arab uprisings and their aftermath. Israel has been working concomitantly with various Arab regimes to maintain autocratic control over the Middle East, which in turn supports Tel Aviv’s dominance over the occupied Palestinian territories. In the early days of the uprisings, this was made evident by the rhetoric of different Israeli officials such as then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who stated “those leaderships [autocrats] as much as they were unaccepted by their peoples, they were very responsible on regional stability … They’re much more comfortable [to us] than the peoples or the streets in the same countries.” Likewise, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Arab uprisings as an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israel, and anti-democratic wave.”
In the 11 years since those comments, Israel’s relationships with other counter-revolutionary actors, notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and others have grown exponentially to include extensive diplomatic, economic, and military collaboration, the provision of sophisticated surveillance technologies, and increasingly coordinated efforts to lobby Washington in favor of their agendas. The so-called “Abraham Accords” should be viewed as a continuation of these effort by creating a more formal coalition of anti-democratic actors, eagerly supported by the United States, as Washington seeks to pivot toward the Indo-Pacific.
Most recently, Israel has been cultivating its ties with aspiring autocrats, such as Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and his son Saddam Haftar, as well as Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan who seized power in a coup last year. These efforts extend beyond just geopolitics and speak to 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 weaponry and turning a blind eye to their abusive human rights records. Despite Biden’s campaign promise to make human rights central to his foreign policy, this same pattern has continued virtually unabated. Continuing American support for this coalition — rooted in what is often referred to as the “myth of authoritarian stability” — serves only to exacerbate the primary source of grievances that lies at the foundation of the region’s problems: the autocrats themselves.