A Developing Authoritarian-Israeli Nexus in the Middle East

Authoritarianism in the Arab world has assumed many shapes and shades in the decades since the end of formal European colonialism in the mid-twentieth century. It has appeared in the form of pseudo-socialist republics, hybrid regimes, confessional edifices, military councils, and hereditary monarchies, as well as in other guises that are essentially political arrangements designed to preserve dominant elite interests. As both history and myriad experiences attest, all of these authoritarian structures have led to repression, the denial of fundamental rights for most of the Arab world’s population, wars of choice to hide regime failures, and stunted development, to name just a few unsavory results. To be sure, Arab authoritarian states have become perfect examples of stagnant politics in elite-appropriated institutions. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of ambitious and resourceful Arabs face daily restrictions on decent living and free expression and are utterly denied the chance to meaningfully participate in their own governance.

Arab authoritarians today can count on Israel as a nascent partner in their monopoly on decision-making, even as they increase their repression across the region. The recent wave of normalization between Israel and some Arab states—namely, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—has helped the former open up economic spaces that were previously closed to it, and has allowed it to sell its military equipment and spyware to these and other regimes that are apprehensive about even the slightest signs of an organized movement for change. As more Arab regimes debate whether or not they should jump on the normalization bandwagon, Israel is increasingly ignoring both Palestinian rights and the possibility—however remote—of a just and equitable resolution to the question of Palestine. In a sense, Israel and Arab authoritarians have finally made the connection between repression and the absence of freedoms on the one hand and Zionism’s original intention of creating an apartheid state on the ruins of Palestinian society on the other.

Israel’s Relations Are with Regimes, Not the People

As is the case with its treaties with Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s relations with its new friends are likely to remain both superficial and limited to regime leaders and their supporters. Forty-three years since Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt, Israeli-Egyptian relations continue to be merely a cold peace. The same applies to Israeli relations with Jordan, with which Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Very few Arabs actually approve of their governments’ cooperation and normalization with Israel. The Arab Opinion Index of 2019-2020 found that 85 percent of Egyptians and 93 percent of Jordanians oppose their respective governments’ recognition of Israel. Meanwhile, 89 percent of all Arabs in the MENA region see Israel as a threat—a larger percentage than those who see the United States (81 percent) or Iran (67 percent) as such. On the question of Palestine, 79 percent of all Arabs consider the matter an Arab issue, rather than a solely Palestinian one. Seventy-four percent of Egyptians and 93 percent of Jordanians share this assessment.

The centrality of the issue of Palestine in Arabs’ political reality and the feeling of solidarity with Palestinians will continue to keep Israeli-Arab relations cold

The centrality of the issue of Palestine in Arabs’ political reality and the feeling of solidarity with Palestinians is what keeps, and will continue to keep, Israeli-Arab relations cold, superficial, and mostly focused on elite transactions and business dealings instead of people-to-people interactions. While the abovementioned survey did not measure public opinion in the UAE or Bahrain, its results did include indicators of negative attitudes toward normalization efforts in Morocco and Sudan. Eighty-eight percent of Moroccans and 79 percent of Sudanese opposed diplomatic relations with Israel, while 70 percent of people in Morocco and 72 percent in Sudan agreed about the centrality and importance of the Palestine issue. It must be noted that a major incentive for Morocco’s agreeing to normalize with Israel was the Trump Administration’s acceptance of the kingdom’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, while Sudan’s decision was facilitated by removing Khartoum from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism. In both older and newer cases of normalization, Israel has been happy to ignore the authoritarian nature of Arab regimes that repress pro-Palestinian sentiments among their peoples and that are willing to grant Israel a veneer of legitimacy in the region despite the plight of Palestinians.

More recent public opinion polling indicates that what was initially zealous support for the Abraham Accords in the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia has since seriously declined. A poll conducted last March by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy shows that between 19 and 25 percent of Emiratis, Bahrainis, and Saudis see the accords in a positive light, while attitudes against normalization have increased and hardened in Egypt Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait. It appears that what was in essence early enthusiasm for normalization with Israel as a way to both help the region deescalate conflict and influence Israeli policy regarding Palestine has been dampened by the realization that the process will not produce these expected results.

What has actually thrived in the wake of recent normalization agreements are economic relations between Israel and normalizing states, and especially the UAE. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there have been very high increases in trade, with the UAE posting a 130 percent increase between May 2021 and May 2022. Israel and the UAE also signed a free trade agreement in May that would eliminate tariffs on 96 percent of goods exchanged between the two countries, the volume of which it is hoped will reach $10 billion annually. Undoubtedly eager to enjoy the supposed oasis of unfettered entertainment in the Gulf, some 100,000 Israelis visited Dubai between August 2020 and April 2021. But no equivalent influx of Emiratis into Israel appears to have materialized, further elucidating the lack of enthusiasm on the part of Arabs for this spate of normalization. Meanwhile, Israeli-Emirati economic relations have expanded to invite other strategic partners to participate, as happened during President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East, which saw the July 14 signing of the I2U2 agreement between Israel, India, the UAE, and the United States.

What has actually thrived in the wake of recent normalization agreements are economic relations between Israel and normalizing states

Israel and Bahrain are also diligently developing bilateral economic, intelligence, and military ties. Israel is selling Bahrain drones and anti-drone systems and training Bahraini intelligence officers. And thriving economic and trade relations exist between Israel and Morocco, with Israeli exports dominating the exchange and projected to reach $250 million a year. The same can be said about Israeli-Egyptian exchanges, which are set to double to $700 million over the next three years. Cooperation with Jordan is also increasing after a long period of very cold bilateral ties between the two countries.

This brief snapshot of economic relations between Israel and both old and new normalizing nations clearly indicates that the Abraham Accords have been a boon for Israel. Its technological and industrial edge over all of its Arab partners make such a conclusion obvious. Arab states are largely either rentier states—usually relying on the strategic commodity of oil—or developing nations with a poor industrial base and heavy foreign debt burdens. To be sure, Israeli exports to these countries are mainly industrial and advanced technological products, including military and intelligence hardware that will without a doubt be used to increase surveillance, monitoring, and repression in authoritarian Arab states. Indeed, it is not hard to surmise that these countries may very well be in the process of becoming client states in Israel’s geopolitical calculations and strategy.

Developing Surveillance and Military Relations

While Arab authoritarian regimes do not depend solely on Israel for tools of repression, over the last few years the Zionist state has become an excellent source of surveillance and hacking technology for use in controlling political activism in Arab societies. Its occupation of Palestinian lands and control over millions of Palestinians has allowed Israel a free hand in testing advanced technological equipment on the people it occupies militarily, equipment that can then be marketed around the world. Palestinian activists and human rights workers feel—and rightfully so—that they are constantly being watched, and therefore face the difficult choice of continuing their activism and thereby exposing themselves to further oppression by Israeli occupation forces, or submitting to the dictates of occupation and giving up their work defending Palestinians’ rights.

Israeli companies trading in digital spyware, and specifically the NSO Group, have—with the encouragement of the Israeli government—sold their wares to Saudi Arabia, even after the October 2018 murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The use of NSO’s Pegasus spyware to spy on Khashoggi before his murder reportedly led some of the company’s employees to quit their jobs. According to a report by Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2020, the NSO Group also sold its Pegasus spyware to Bahrain, Oman, and some emirates in the UAE. And in Morocco, activists were targeted with the same technology due to their advocacy for protestors’ and journalists’ rights.

Military relations between Israel and some Arab regimes have significantly expanded.

Both Pegasus and a software tool from cyber company Cytrox were also used to spy on Ayman Nour, an Egyptian former presidential candidate who challenged late President Hosni Mubarak in 2005, and who now resides outside of Egypt because he fears being arrested by Egyptian authorities. It is important to note that the Israeli government under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked to sell the spy technology to countries that later voted in its favor at the United Nations General Assembly, practically providing the spyware as an incentive for countries to facilitate Israeli foreign policy initiatives and actions. The fact that Israel decided at the end of 2021 to bar Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Morocco from buying the technology does not change the fact that these countries already own it and can therefore continue to use it to surveil and monitor their citizens.

Military relations between Israel and some Arab regimes have also significantly expanded. For example, Chief of General Staff of the Israeli Army Aviv Kochavi recently visited Morocco to plan for further military cooperation between the two countries. In addition to spyware, Israel has sold Morocco drones, missiles, and small arms, and the two have also conducted joint military exercises. Cooperation with Israel has also become central to the Gulf and other states’ thinking when it comes to combatting Iran. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has confirmed that a regional air defense alliance is already operative, with the explicit goal of countering the Islamic Republic’s missiles and drones. While no Arab countries have been specifically identified as working with Israel on this alliance, it is obvious that many Gulf nations are taking part. Last February, Israel and Bahrain signed a military cooperation agreement during a visit by Gantz to Manama. The UAE and Israel also signed a deal in 2021 to develop unmanned aerial vehicles, which is expected to be the first in a string of agreements on other types of weapons. And in February 2022, the UAE was reported to have inquired about acquiring an Israeli radar system to be used in defending against missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi movement.

Behind It All, America’s Blessing

The Abraham Accords that were encouraged and shepherded along by the Trump Administration continue to be the impetus for an American embrace of the strong alliance between Arab authoritarians and Israel. President Joe Biden’s recent trip to Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia was in large part intended to boost Arab-Israeli relations and encourage Saudi Arabia to join the trend of normalization with the Zionist state. Deploying different rubrics and justifications—including building regional partnerships and exchanges, increasing chances for regional peace, and countering an expansionist Iran—President Biden used his office and the prestige of the United States to advance further Arab-Israeli openness and collaboration. But the president ignored two striking realities in the process: Arab authoritarians’ violations of human rights and their denial of fundamental political and social freedoms to their citizens, and Israel’s apartheid policies governing its occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

President Biden used his office and the prestige of the United States to advance further Arab-Israeli collaboration.

In their push to sustain their rule over their citizens, Arab authoritarian regimes have been extremely resourceful in finding the necessary tools for repression. They have also succeeded in maintaining cordial relationships with global centers of power seeking to enhance their own interests, from the United States and Europe to Russia and China, not to mention many other states in between. But the search for friends, partners, and allies continues, since circumstances continue to change along with the ever-changing dialectics of international politics. Over the last few years, and as socioeconomic conditions in the Arab world continue to deteriorate, Arab authoritarians appear to have found in Zionist Israel a ready and willing partner in their quest to stay in power for many years to come.