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Making the Middle East Safe for Tyranny
We’ve learned some hard truths recently. One of them is about Joe Biden: He’s not up to this moment. It’s now painfully clear that defending voting rights, women’s freedom, and the species itself requires abolishing the filibuster and reforming the Supreme Court. Biden needs to rally Americans to the cause of saving our democracy by democratizing our government. He’s not doing that. He’s too wedded to old assumptions about how American politics should work. These assumptions enable the very authoritarianism he claims to oppose.
It's similar in foreign policy. Biden talks a good game about democracy and human rights. He’s pledged to “push back on authoritarianism” around the world. And when the authoritarians are America’s great power foes, Russia and China, he does just that. But in the Middle East, Biden isn’t pushing back against authoritarianism; he’s funding, arming and emboldening it. The trip he’s taking this week to Israel and Saudi Arabia would make Donald Trump proud.
But first, a world about this Friday’s Zoom call. Our guest will be New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who has been doing a remarkable job of using American history to explain why American democracy is in danger, and how Americans should respond. As usual, subscribers will get the Zoom link on Wednesday and the video the following week. Join us.
Back to Biden’s trip to the Middle East. It will start in Israel, which is a liberal democracy for Jews and something closer to a tyranny for most Palestinians. Roughly seven million Palestinians live under Israeli control. (Several million more live as refugees in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria because Israel expelled them or their descendants and won’t let them return.) Of the seven million Palestinians under Israeli control, three million live in the West Bank, where they are permanently barred from citizenship and the right to vote in Israeli elections, even though those elections produce governments that arrest them, confiscate their land, demolish their homes, and impede their travel.
An additional two million Palestinians reside in the Gaza Strip, where they live under Israeli control in a different way. Although it no longer stations troops in Gaza, Israel (with help from Egypt) controls everything that legally enters and exits by air, land, and sea. Israel has even established buffer zones inside Gaza from which it prohibits Palestinians from entering at risk of being shot. The Israeli human rights group Gisha has detailed just how pervasive Israel’s control is:
Gaza residents may not bring a crate of milk into the Gaza Strip without Israeli permission; A Gaza university cannot receive visits from a foreign lecturer unless Israel issues a visitor’s permit; A Gaza mother cannot register her child in the Palestinian population registry without Israeli approval; A Gaza fisherman cannot fish off the coast of Gaza without permission from Israel; A Gaza nonprofit organization cannot receive a tax-exempt donation of goods without Israeli approval; A Gaza teacher cannot receive her salary unless Israel agrees to transfer tax revenues to the Palestinian Ministry of Education; A Gaza farmer cannot get his carnations and cherry tomatoes to market unless Israel permits the goods to exit Gaza; A Gaza student cannot study abroad without Israeli approval to open the Gaza-Egypt crossing.
To be sure, Hamas holds sway inside Gaza like a prison gang after the guards have retreated. But like the armed guards who secure the prison’s perimeter, Israel still wields ultimate control. And, as in the West Bank, it does so without any democratic accountability to the Palestinians it rules.
Finally, two million of the seven million Palestinians under Israeli control (sometimes called “Israeli Arabs”) enjoy Israeli citizenship. They’re second class citizens, especially when it comes to land, most of which is allocated by a state body designed exclusively to serve Jews. Still, Palestinian citizens can vote and serve in the Knesset. Comparatively, they’re the lucky ones.
What would it mean for Biden to “push back on authoritarianism” in a country where most Palestinians lack basic freedoms? It could mean supporting the right of Palestinians to citizenship in the country in which they live. But that would require transforming Israel from a state that favors Jews into one based on legal equality irrespective of ethnicity and religion, a transformation the Biden administration defines as antisemitism.
Alternatively, Biden could bar Israel from using American aid to enforce its control over territories where Palestinians lack elemental rights, or at least bar that aid from being used for the most egregious purposes, like child detention and home demolition. But Biden has called any conditioning of aid “outrageous.” Even more modestly, Biden could reaffirm America’s longstanding position—which it held for decades until Trump—that the US considers it a violation of international law for Israel to build settlements in the West Bank, many of which are constructed on land confiscated from stateless Palestinians. He won’t even do that. Biden could open the US consulate in East Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington so his administration at least reestablishes traditional lines of communication with Palestinians and their representatives. Not happening. He could visit Masafer Yatta, where roughly 2500 West Bank Palestinians face expulsion in what the United Nations warns may constitute a “war crime.” Nope. Finally, at absolute rock bottom, Biden could at least defend the rights of Palestinians who are US citizens by demanding independent investigations when Israeli soldiers kill them, as has happened twice so far this year. Even that is evidently too much to ask from a president who vowed last fall that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.”
Biden isn’t going to Israel to oppose authoritarianism. He’s going to showcase America’s support for it, not only in Israel but across the region. In the Washington Post, Biden boasted that this Friday he will become “the first president to fly from Israel to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia,” a voyage that signifies “the normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.” The phrase “Arab world” is misleading. Polls suggest that many people in the Arab world, where sympathy for the Palestinians remain strong, strongly oppose normalization with Israel. When Israel established relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in 2020, civil society organizations of all ideological stripes in the Persian Gulf registered their opposition. What Biden means by “Arab world” is Arab regimes, which happen to be some of the most repressive on earth. According to Freedom House’s most recent report on political rights and civil liberties, Bahrain merited a 12 out of 100. The UAE garnered a 17. Saudi Arabia, which Biden wants to join the normalization club, got a 7. According to Freedom House, that makes it half as free as Iran. There’s only one country in the Persian Gulf that Freedom House ranks as even “partly free”: Kuwait. Government officials there have said they will be “the last to normalize relations” with the Jewish State. Is that because Kuwaitis are more antisemitic than their counterparts in the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia? No. It’s because Kuwait is the Gulf monarchy where an elected parliament wields the most power.
Given Biden’s flowery rhetoric about democracy, you’d think he’d recognize that what matters morally isn’t whether governments establish normal diplomatic relations. It’s what they use those diplomatic relations for. Like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Russia and Hungary have an acrimonious past. But the Biden administration wouldn’t celebrate a diplomatic breakthrough between Moscow and Budapest because the two regimes would use their closer ties to undermine human rights at home and abroad. The same can be said about Israel and its new Arab partners. One of things Gulf tyrannies get from better relations with Israel is assistance repressing their people. In 2016, a renowned Emirati human rights activist named Ahmed Mansoor received a suspicious text message, which was later traced to the Israeli spyware company, the NSO group. Six months later, Mansour was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison, where according to Human Rights Watch he has been denied access to critical medical care. Saudi Arabia was an NSO client too, and according to the Guardian, Riyadh used the company’s wares to hunt dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who Saudi officials later dismembered. According to King’s College professor Andreas Krieg, Israeli surveillance technology “has contributed to a constraint of the freedom of speech over the past decade that is unprecedented in its rigidity, even in the Gulf.”
What Biden will be promoting on his ground-breaking excursion from Tel Aviv to Jidda is a set of partnerships that fosters repression not only of Palestinians, Emiratis, Bahrainis, and Saudis—but exports repression across the Middle East. Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—which fear that accountable government elsewhere in the region might embolden their own freedom-starved subjects—have supported coups against democratic or democratizing governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan. Israel, which prefers authoritarian governments that can ignore their public’s support for the Palestinian cause, sent its own supportive signals to the military leaders who carried out the coups in Egypt and Sudan. What the United States says China is trying to do globally—cement its own authoritarian rule by buttressing authoritarianism elsewhere—is exactly what America’s allies are doing in the Middle East. And Biden is practically cheering them on.
Why is Biden doing this? Because he’s internalized a set of assumptions that require him to ditch his democratic principles when it comes to America’s allies in the Middle East. He thinks domestic politics require him to support Israel unconditionally. He thinks combatting Russia and China requires coddling Gulf oil producers so they will hold down energy prices and tilt America’s way in the coming cold war. But these are choices. Biden could have pushed harder to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which would have brought more oil into the market and left him less reliant on Riyadh. He could have supported at least modest efforts at holding Israel accountable for its denial of Palestinian rights, as most ordinary Democrats support. He could have pursued a less zero sum policy toward China, which would make Riyadh’s relationship with Beijing less terrifying.
Examine Biden’s Middle East policy closely and you see the same self-imposed constraints that characterize his response when the Senate obstructs voting rights and the Supreme Court eradicates reproductive freedom. He responds with a shrug. The implicit message is: Authoritarians have the upper hand; there’s not much we can do.
But most Democrats in the US don’t believe that. Neither do most democrats in the Middle East. Across the US and across the world, there are people willing to fight creatively and boldly against oppressive power. Joe Biden isn’t serving their cause.
On Monday at 10 AM ET, I’ll be talking about Biden’s Middle East trip with the University of Richmond’s Dana El-Kurd, the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi and the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Lara Friedman. RSVP here.
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See you on Friday,