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2 May 2024

The Arab “democracy dilemma” is a fallacy

It’s simply not true that authoritarian rule in the Arab world is necessary to maintain peace with Israel.

By Arash Azizi

Iran’s large drone and missile attack on Israel on 15 April was as shocking as it was unprecedented. But almost as noteworthy a development was a certain neighbour of Israel rushing to the latter’s defence: the Kingdom of Jordan, an Arab state with millions of Palestinian-origin citizens, helped shoot down Iranian drones and missiles over its airspace. Could Israel celebrate that its Arab neighbour was an ally against Iran?

Not quite. Though Jordan has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1994, officials in Amman were adamant that they had shot down the Iranian projectiles to protect themselves, not to help Israel. The government there knew that the optics of helping Israel after months of its brutal war on Gaza wouldn’t go down so well with Jordanians.

It should be no surprise there is a divide between the Arab public and its leaders on the issue of Israel. Since 7 October, tens of thousands of Jordanians have come out in regular protests, many in front of the Israeli embassy in Amman, demanding that the Kingdom cancels water and gas agreements with Israel and severs diplomatic ties. More than 1,500 demonstrators have been arrested.

Similar protests have rocked cities all over the Arab world, both in countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel such as Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco, and those that do not, like Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Qatar. Even as many Arab leaders have moved to develop informal and formal ties with Israel, much of their populations remain unconvinced. This can be shown not just by recent protests, but also opinion polls and public displays of hostility, such as the frosty reception given to many Israelis at the first Arab-hosted World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

As the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi put it in an interview last year, “If you had democracy in the Arab world, you wouldn’t have any normalisation [with Israel].”

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Khalidi is right that the normalisation of relations with Israel – as in the 2020 Abraham Accords, which came with diplomatic and trade pacts between Israel and four Arab countries without any concessions to Palestinians – are unpopular among ordinary Arabs. But the idea that Arab publics are intractably hostile to Israel has also been twisted by opponents of Israeli-Palestinian peace to claim that there is a contradiction between peace and democracy in the region.

In fact, the idea that authoritarian leaders are a so-called lesser evil in the Middle East as they are more likely to keep the peace than a democratically elected leader would, has been central to US policy arguments. This is what the US political scientist Shadi Hamid calls the “democracy dilemma” of Western policy – when alarming or illiberal policies are popular with the public. In 2018, Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, opined that democracy “has been a disaster for minorities [and others]” in the Middle East and that “inclusive authoritarianism” might be a “better alternative”.

But these claims, that democracy in the Arab world would directly translate to a hostile attitude or even inevitable conflict towards Israel, are half-truths at best and misleading at worst. Many of the same polls that show Arabs reject normalisation agreements with Israel also show that they would be happy with diplomatic ties with Israel, if only it allowed for the creation of a Palestinian state. In other words, Arab citizens have the same position as most Arab leaders and the Arab League: the two-state solution.

This consensus came with a high price: tens of thousands of Arab citizens died in repeated wars with Israel. But Arab states have stopped fighting such wars. This is true not just about pro-Western states such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but also anti-Western ones like Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, or those staunchly critical of Israel such as Algeria or Kuwait. Neither have fired a shot against Israel in decades. Even if Assad allows Iran and its allied militias to operate against Israel from its territory, he’s motivated by a calculus of self-preservation. His father Hafez came remarkably close to concluding a peace deal with Israel before his death in 2000. Despite what some protesters might demand in Cairo or Amman, there is no evidence that a democratically elected government would want to rekindle a war against Israel or ruin the excellent relations with the West that is so beneficial to these nations.

We can find an example in neighbouring Turkey, which has had an Islamist leader since 2002. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s base includes many anti-Israel voices, and he has often denounced Tel Aviv. But, in his more than two decades in power, Erdoğan has never cut diplomatic relations with Israel and, before 7 October, had even been trying to improve them. People in his ruling Justice and Development Party that I have spoken to over the years are firmly committed to the two-state solution.

When Egypt elected its own Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi in 2012 one of his first pledges was maintaining the country’s peace treaty with Israel. Democratically elected or not, it’s unlikely any Egyptian leader would want to antagonise the US by cutting ties with Israel. President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by a fundamentalist in 1981, partly because he had made peace with Israel, remains a highly popular figure in Egyptian public memory.

Democracy in the Arab world would also bring new possibilities for more open discussions about the future, including of peace with Israel. Scholars like Dana El Kurd have rightly shown how authoritarians in the Arab world suppress anti-Israel and anti-normalisation voices, using the Western legitimacy that comes with relations with Israel to bolster their rule at home. We saw this in March when Morocco’s king asked the country’s largest Islamist party to stop criticising his government’s ties with Israel and keep out of foreign policy debates. Yet any positive discussion of Israel can also lead to harsh punishment in countries such as Tunisia, Iraq and Lebanon, whose leaders are wedded to the old-school rejection of Israel. This was apparent in 2021 when participants of a small pro-normalisation conference in Erbil, in the Kurdish region of Iraq, faced arrests, prosecution and death threats. Many were forced to apologise for having even discussed the possibility of improving relations. Such a situation would not take place under democratic systems.

In a democracy, people and their elected representatives could have a more rational debate about the pros and cons of a particular policy on Israel. We can even go further and imagine that democracy goes hand-in-hand with a culture of peace. As the Indian philosopher Amartya Sen likes to quip, democracies do not usually go to war with one another.

Democratic governance comes with a very different set of motivations than that of oppositional activism in non-democratic systems. Even political groups that take strict positions against Israel would face a different reality if they were to actually govern. Kuwait, for instance, has relatively freely elected parliamentarians who have called for their government to drop its support for the two-state solution and for Israel to be referred to by the ominous “Zionist entity”. Were they holding power and shouldering responsibility for the country’s economic stability and security, however, they would likely have to be more pragmatic.

This is not to say that if Arab countries were democratic, their policies towards Israel would stay the same. They would likely push for a tougher stance against its treatment of Palestinians, and a more robust contestation over the intricacies of Israel policy, just as we see on the streets and university campuses of Western democracies.

But there is no reason to believe that under democratic leaders, Arabs would adopt an anti-Israel position like that of the Iranian regime – the only major state in the region that refuses to accept a two-state solution, promises to destroy Israel, and arms and funds militias that fight to achieve that objective. Instead, Arab masses would be more likely to forcefully demand the same thing their leaders weakly ask for now: an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories, the formation of a State of Palestine, and a path towards peace and development for all countries of the region.

Millions of people in the Middle East want the same thing: for the missiles to stop and for people’s prosperity to be secured. But what Arabs want for themselves, they naturally also want for their Palestinian brethren who currently suffer under a brutal occupation. Israel should put aside Benjamin Netanyahu’s “cakeist” fantasy about a peace without the Palestinians. Ending the occupation is the quickest way for Israel to gain not just diplomatic agreements with Middle East’s authoritarians but genuine peace with the region’s population. That is what the Arab people want.

[See also: Revealed: the £80bn hole in council finances]

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