Israel’s Repressive Diplomacy

The recent normalization agreements with Arab states rely on—and contribute to—growing authoritarianism.

Peter Beinart
October 26, 2020
A man holds a poster in Arabic that reads, “we will not give up, we will not sell out, we will not agree on normalization,” at a protest in Khartoum, Sudan, over the Sudanese President of the Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan’s decision to meet Israel’s prime minister in a move toward normalizing relations, February 7th, 2020. Photo: Marwan Ali/AP Photo

ON OCTOBER 23RD, Donald Trump announced that Sudan would begin the process of normalizing relations with Israel. The declaration, which was part of a deal to remove Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terror, follows last month’s pledges by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to recognize the Jewish state. Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu have claimed that those peace deals—dubbed “The Abraham Accords”—will promote “human dignity and freedom” in the Middle East. 

Twelve days after the Abraham Accords were signed, a poet named Dhabiya Khamis tried to exercise her freedom to leave the UAE. Her government barred her from boarding the plane. “The ban is probably because of my announced opinion against Zionism and normalization,” Khamis declared. “I fear for my freedom and life from being threatened and arrested.” Those fears were well-founded. According to a report in Middle East Monitor, “scores of Emiratis, Palestinians and Jordanians living in the UAE” had already been jailed “for opposing Abu-Dhabi’s peace deal with Israel.”

Khamis’s experience illustrates a harsh truth: Although Israel’s diplomatic breakthroughs in the Persian Gulf have elicited bipartisan praise in Washington, they rely on—and contribute to—brutal repression. In Sudan, which is undergoing a fragile transition after three decades of dictatorial rule, normalization imperils democracy too. The reason is simple. In a region where sympathy for the Palestinian cause still runs deep, recognizing Israel elicits fierce popular opposition. To implement normalization agreements, therefore, Netanyahu and Trump need their Arab partners to quash domestic dissent. For years, Israel’s boosters have bemoaned the lack of democracy in the Middle East. Ironically, it is that lack of democracy on which Israel’s peace diplomacy largely depends. 

In a region dominated by autocratic governments, gauging people’s views—especially on a subject as sensitive as relations with Israel—is difficult. Some polling suggests overwhelming public opposition. In 2019 and 2020, for instance, when the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies asked more than 28,000 individuals in 13 Arab countries whether they supported “diplomatic recognition of Israel by your country,” 88% said no. In June, when the Washington Institute for Near East Peace asked Emiratis whether “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so,” 80% disagreed. By contrast, surveys of eight Arab countries, including the UAE, by Zogby Research Services in 2019 and again in 2020 found considerable openness to establishing diplomatic ties. (Many respondents, James Zogby has suggested, believed that “with normalization Arab states would gain some leverage over Israel enabling them to help secure rights for the Palestinian people.”) But even under the most generous reading of the data, any Arab government that sought its people’s approval for a peace treaty with Israel would face substantial resistance—which helps explain why, in both Bahrain and the UAE, warming relations with the Jewish state have coincided with intensifying repression.

Although a monarchy, Bahrain once had a vocal legislature that regularly hauled in government ministers for tough questioning. In both 2006 and 2010, a Shia party opposed to the country’s Sunni-dominated government won almost half the seats in parliament and began launching investigations into government corruption. But during the 2011 Arab Spring, when protesters demanded the resignation of Bahrain’s long-serving and allegedly corrupt prime minister (who also happened to be the uncle of the king), the regime—with support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE—cracked down. Ever since, as Kristian Ulrichsen, an expert on the Persian Gulf at Rice University, explained to me, Bahrain’s parliament has been “neutered.” In its annual “Freedom in the World” report, the US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House notes that Bahrain “was once viewed as a promising model for political reform and democratic transition.” Yet “since violently crushing a popular prodemocracy protest movement in 2011, the Sunni-led monarchy has systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties.”

Bahrain’s rapprochement with Israel—which has quietly been underway for years—didn’t cause this growing authoritarianism. But it has relied on it. As The International Crisis Group’s Elham Fakhro has noted, 17 Bahraini civil society organizations—ranging from leftist to nationalist to Islamist—issued a joint statement last month opposing diplomatic ties with Israel. The Shia opposition party that claimed close to half the seats in parliament before 2011 announced its disapproval too. That party is now banned. And because parliament barely functions, Bahrain’s king has found these expressions of discontent far easier to ignore.

To illustrate how Bahrain’s rising authoritarianism has facilitated its growing ties to Israel, Ulrichsen draws a contrast with nearby Kuwait, the only country in the Persian Gulf that Freedom House rates as “partly free.” As in Bahrain, a wide cross section of Kuwaiti civil society has denounced normalization. But that opposition carries more weight because parliament can remove government ministers from office. In Kuwait, Ulrichsen explained, “no government minister will support normalization if they feel parliament will oppose it.” If similar accountability existed in Bahrain, its foreign minister probably would not have signed the Abraham Accords on the White House lawn.

While the Israeli government has benefitted from political repression in Bahrain, it has actively abetted it in the UAE. In 2015, Ahmed Mansoor won the Martin Ennals Award, sometimes called the Nobel Prize for human rights, for his work opposing torture and defending free speech in the Emirates. The following year he received a suspicious text message on his phone. An investigation by the Canadian research organization Citizen Lab linked the message to the NSO Group, the same Israeli company that is alleged to have helped Saudi Arabia track the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A subsequent lawsuit against the company claims that it could not have sold its spyware to the UAE without the Israeli government’s consent. Six months after receiving the text message, Mansoor was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for offending the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols.” Since his arrest, Human Rights Watch reported in June, he “has been confined in an isolation cell . . . deprived of books, a bed, even access to fresh air.” 

Mansoor’s case is just one example of how Israel has enabled the UAE’s surveillance of its own people. In 2017, former Israeli intelligence operatives began leaving NSO to join a company called DarkMatter, which The New York Times has called “effectively an arm of the [Emirati] state.” According to Reuters, DarkMatter, which has also poached former employees of the US National Security Agency, spied on both Emirati dissidents and foreign journalists who wrote critical stories about the regime. Last year, the Times reported that DarkMatter had disseminated a product called ToTok, a text and video messaging app that secretly allowed the UAE government to “try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.” The partnership between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem, King’s College London Professor Andreas Krieg told the German news site Deutsche Welle earlier this year, “has contributed to a constraint of the freedom of speech over the past decade that is unprecedented in its rigidity, even in the Gulf.” 

The dynamic on display in the UAE and Bahrain helps to explain why normalization could undermine the democratic transition in Sudan. Last spring, mass demonstrations toppled Khartoum’s long-serving dictator, Omar al-Bashir. But Sudan’s military has not gone quietly. After a tense and sometimes bloody standoff last summer between pro-democracy protesters and generals seeking to preserve military rule, Sudan cobbled together a hybrid government meant to pave the way for free elections. Its primary features are a Sovereign Council, dominated by generals; a Cabinet, dominated by civilians; and a legislative assembly, which does not yet exist. 

From the beginning, the civilians and generals have agreed on one thing: To have any hope of rescuing its shattered economy, Sudan must get off of Washington’s list of terror-sponsoring states. In the process, however, they have realized that the path to Washington runs through Jerusalem: To liberate itself from the Trump administration’s terrorism list, Khartoum must sign a peace deal with Israel. 

The generals appear willing to do so absent a popular mandate. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, the general who chairs the Sovereign Council, previously oversaw Sudan’s participation in the Saudi-led and UAE-backed war in Yemen and remains close to both Gulf monarchies. In February, reportedly at the UAE’s request, he blindsided Sudan’s civilian-led cabinet by holding a surprise meeting with Netanyahu in Uganda.

For his part, civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok has insisted that, as an unelected caretaker, he “does not have a mandate . . . to decide on normalization.” The Forces of Freedom and Change, the umbrella group that led the protests against Bashir, has insisted that “[f]undamental changes to a political issue of such importance, as the relationship with Israel, should be decided by the Sudanese people through channels that represent them.” 

In deference to those concerns, Sudan’s acting foreign minister insists that last Friday’s normalization agreement with Israel requires ratification by his country’s yet-to-be-created legislature. But the official White House statement, which declares that Sudan’s leaders have “agreed to the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel,” includes no such caveats. And in a country where—according to an Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies poll—almost 80% of people oppose normalization, rapidly establishing diplomatic ties to Israel could destabilize the fragile transitional government. The announcement has already sparked public protests. And the leader of Sudan’s largest political party, which has close ties to the protest movement that overthrew Bashir, claims that the normalization agreement “contradicts the Sudanese national law” and could mean “the ignition of a new war.” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), told me she fears Sudan’s generals may use the resulting instability as the pretext for a “full military takeover and end to the democratic transition.” In which case Sudan would be on its way to resembling the UAE and Bahrain. 

It’s no accident that growing normalization has accompanied growing authoritarianism. It’s the logical result of Israeli policy. In 2002, the entire Arab League offered to make peace with Israel if it met the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s core demands: a viable Palestinian state and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees. Had Israel accepted that offer, Arab governments seeking to establish diplomatic ties to the Jewish state would have met less public resistance. But, especially under Netanyahu, Israel has pursued normalization without meeting minimal Palestinian demands. Some Arab regimes—fearful of Iranian power and US retrenchment—still find diplomatic ties with Israel appealing. Yet because such ties enjoy less popular support, forging them requires greater repression—repression carried out with the aid of Israeli technology.

In the coming months, Israel may succeed in normalizing relations with additional Arab states. Over the long run, however, its warming relations with oppressive regimes will likely provoke even greater hostility from the broader Arab public. In the past, Arab citizens mostly resented Israel for oppressing Palestinians. In the future, they may also resent it for helping their own governments to oppress them.

A previous version of this story conflated two separate surveys by Zogby Research Services: one in 2019, and one in 2020. This has been corrected.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.