Maintaining Israel's regional supremacy - supporting autocracy at the cost of democracy

Maintaining Israel's regional supremacy - supporting autocracy at the cost of democracy
(L to R) Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP)

Lara Hamidi
Researcher for ImpACT International


As Israel actively promotes itself as the region's democratic role model, it has strategically supported the continuation of its most autocratic neighbors, to prevent the possibility of potential partnerships with Western states. In this light, it has managed to create its image as the ‘saving grace’ in a region surrounded by rogue states and irrational leaders in need of guidance.

There are many factors that have been employed by the state, such as normalization pacts with its neighboring countries, taking advantage of Palestine's divided politics and forming close ties with the region's autocratic leaders, all of which directly contradict the actions that a pure democracy would take. It has become overwhelmingly clear that Israel keeps its neighbors one step behind itself at an autocratic level to benefit from the region's lack of democracy.

Israel’s ability to maintain its regional power and continue its apartheid regime is partly contingent upon its autocratic neighbors and the blind eye they turn to the political crimes taking place in their neighbourhood.

The pursuit of democracy was first established by the Knesset, Israel's legislature, and supreme authority, in 1958 with the publication of the basic law which was laid out to establish the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (Human Rights Watch, 2021).

Political division in Palestine

On a domestic level, the deep division in Palestinian politics works wonders in feeding into Israel's image as the region's most stable and rational state. The fragmentation between Fatah and Hamas has caused further difficulties for the plight of the Palestinian state and its regional voice, which in turn has worked in favor of the Israeli state and its western allies. The tension between the two Palestinian factions began in 2007 with Hamas gaining control over the Gaza Strip after winning parliamentary elections the previous year. Since then, Hamas and Fatah have been working tirelessly to fester on the other’s weaknesses.

Not only are there divisions between the political parties, fragmentation within the parties can also be found, making it more difficult to create an image of stability that can stand against an oppressor. This demonstrated to the international community that Israel’s perfect democracy should continue inflicting its apartheid regime on Palestine, but it has additionally left the Palestinian people feeling alienated from their own political leaders. This factional division has been described as a split between Hamas’ cynical authoritarianism in Gaza and Fatah’s inefficient authoritarianism in the West Bank (Al-Omari, 2021).

Ultimately, the inability for Palestinian political factions to unite in one form has caused mistrust amongst principal agents in the region and the international community, namely the United States. Ultimately, if Palestinian politics remains fragmented at the rate it is, building its domestic and international legitimacy will only get harder, deepening their commitment problem and strategic bargaining power.

2020’s normalization trend

As a strategic move in furthering its geopolitical influence, Israel's recent normalization deals with its less democratic neighbors has allowed the state to establish partnerships and continue its human rights violations under the apartheid regime that is a dark cloud over Palestine and its regional supporters.

One of the most recent events causing great controversy in the region is Israel and the United Arab Emirates normalization agreement signed in September of 2020. This deal has allowed the United States to advance in its regional goals. The normalisation between the two agents has been reported as one that creates much needed peace in the Middle East. However, contrary to this utopian visualization of what normalization ties are, the prime purpose does not stand for peace and friendship, it is a way in which autocratic regimes have expanded their power by remaining on the right side of the United States diplomatic and security policy.

2020 can be described as the year that Israel gained acceptance and increased its influence in the region. With UAE normalization came the formation of ties with Sudan, Morocco, and Bahrain. These ties all serve as a perfect example of the bargaining power that Israel has managed to obtain over autocratic regimes. Not only has this bargaining power increased Israel's ability to form ties in the region, it has also enhanced its international reliability as a principal agent in the Middle East.

Fear of regional condemnation

Israel’s ability to maintain its regional power and continue its apartheid regime is partly contingent upon its autocratic neighbors and the blind eye they turn to the political crimes taking place in their neighbourhood. In the event that countries in the region turn democratic, voices of popular dissent and mass mobilization against Israeli atrocities would need to be heard and acted upon. Thus, the fear of regional condemnation is part of the reasoning behind Israel's counterrevolutionary strategy.

Although we have seen the autocracies political support for the Palestinian cause cease and dramatically shift to the recognition of the Israeli state, it cannot go without saying that the fight for the Palestinian cause is still one that is greatly prevalent in the Arab street. However, for political leaders, since the Arab Spring of 2011, the issue of Palestine has declined in political importance largely due to the fragmentation. Furthermore, with Arab states recovering from the aftermath of 2011, those countries attempting democratic transition, such as Tunisia, have their own internal pressures even more so with the promotion of normalisation ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since then, Israel presented the image that the world was growing more accepting of its position in the region. Essentially, the fight for the Palestinian cause would be much more effective if regimes in the Middle East move from their autocratic rule and transition to more democratic systems and eventually achieve direct democracy.

Increased bargaining power

Israel’s bargaining chip as the only democratic country in the region, will diminish in an instant if the region is saturated with other democratic regimes. An increase in such states would increase the region's diplomatic attractiveness and would attract states in the so-called west to make alliances with countries other than Israel. This dangerous transition would mean that Israel’s competitive advantage as the Middle East's freest country, would be replaced with new and powerful autocracies.

As the region's supposed leading democratic country, Israel's warm embrace of the world's most autocratic regimes is shocking and at most shameful to the definition of true democracy. In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed President Idriss Deby of Chad, ending 46 years of cut ties. The state secured agreements with Sudan and Bahrain, whilst working with autocratic leaders such as General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan who seized power in Sudan after a coup. On top of this, with the Kashoggi killing, Israel had taken its stance by defending Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Whilst in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu advertised his belief that the future of politics will not belong to liberal states alone. Far from being a beacon to other nations, Israel’s alliance with regimes in the middle east harms human rights. It encourages those in the west, who would otherwise be concerned with abuses in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which has an arrangement with Israel, to turn a blind eye towards the actions they take against their own citizens. The blank cheque that Israel receives from some of its supporters on the UN’s Security Council, will continue to be extended to autocratic countries whose rulers are antithetical to freedom. Israel’s normalisation of relations with Mohammed bin Zayed’s UAE for instance is therefore hampering human rights reforms in the region, and not just in Palestine. Israel is empowered. It has proved that international recognition does not depend upon reforming its treatment of Palestinians and ending the occupation. Similarly, the damaging effect on human rights arising from Israel’s negative incentive to change is compounded by the now positive incentive that exists for Israel’s supporters to back those autocracies that have reached an accord with Israel.

Ultimately, it can be argued that for Israel to ensure its own safety and position as the United States’ strongest and closest ally and client in the region, democratic transitions have been deeply opposed and contested; this has been carried out through a series of strategic geopolitical tools and campaigns. To ensure regional stability, Israel should put an end to its apartheid regime and respect the set of values and principles that constitute to a well-functioning democracy.