Why Israel Supporters are Embracing Arab Autocrats

If you missed our discussion last Friday with my old colleague Spencer Ackerman, author of the acclaimed new book, Reign of Terror: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, you missed something remarkable. It was the rawest, bluntest and most intimate conversation about the culpability of American journalists and policymakers in America’s crimes abroad that I’ve ever been part of. One listener wrote in the chat, “The best conversation I’ve seen on zoom, maybe ever!!!” Another wrote, “‘blown away’ is an understatement.” The credit goes to Spencer; I just asked the questions.

If you want to watch to my conversation with Spencer, subscribe and we’ll send you the video. You’ll also get access to our previous conversations with Noam Chomsky, Omar Barghouti, Ben Rhodes, and many others.

This coming Friday, we’ll be joined by Salem Barahmeh, Executive Director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, and a leader of Generation for Democratic Renewal, a youth-led Palestinian movement struggling against both Israeli oppression and the authoritarian rule of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. Given the PA’s brutal crackdown on dissent in recent weeks, and reports that it even may be “on the verge of collapse,” it’s a conversation I’m eager to have. We’ll take your questions, as always.

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Now some news from the Beltway. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy hands out something called the Scholar-Statesman Award. It generally honors the kind of people you’d expect a hawkish, pro-Israeli government think tank to honor. Tony Blair has won the award. So have Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, and former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. But this year’s winner garnered more attention than usual. It is Mohamed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates.

In its announcement, the Institute praised Bin Zayed for “securing the breakthrough peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, as well as his commitment to expanding religious tolerance at home.” The last clause is nonsense. Bin Zayed isn’t a champion of religious freedom. As Human Rights Watch noted in a report this summer, his Sunni-dominated regime has waged a campaign of “Enforced Disappearances, Incommunicado Detention [and] Groundless Deportation” against Shia Muslims. And even for Sunnis, the UAE is an absolute monarchy. Freedom House reports that “political parties are banned” and “and all executive, legislative, and judicial authority ultimately rests with the seven hereditary rulers.” According to Freedom House’s rankings, people in the UAE enjoy fewer political rights than people in Iran.

The Washington Institute’s decision to honor Bin Zayed is part of a trend. The Israeli government and its Washington supporters now also promote some of the most vicious tyrants in the Arab world. Earlier this month, The Times of Israel reported that the Israeli government has urged the Biden administration to stop criticizing Saudi Arabia and Egypt for their human rights violations. In May, analysts at another prominent pro-Israel think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), urged the Biden administration to sell more weapons to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who has jailed thousands of dissidents and imprisons the third most journalists of any regime in the world. FDD staffers have also proposed including the Egyptian and Emirati militaries in joint military exercises with the US and Israel.

What makes all this so ironic is that, for as long as I can remember, defenders of the Israeli government have chastised Israel’s critics for their supposed “double standards” when it comes to human rights. Why are they so focused on Israel when its neighbors are so much worse? Earlier this year, when Ben and Jerry’s announced that it would no longer sell ice cream in the West Bank, three FDD officials accused it of “Double Scoops and Double Standards.” The implication is that while Israel’s critics ignore human rights abuses elsewhere in the Middle East, Israel’s defenders are passionate proponents of freedom and democracy across the Arab world. Except that’s not true at all. In Washington, the same people who overlook Israel’s human rights abuses generally overlook the abuses of America’s other Middle Eastern allies too, so long as they stay on good terms with Israel. By contrast, the people most dedicated to ending US support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians are also the most dedicated to ending US support for Arab regimes that oppress their people.

Compare the Washington Institute and FDD to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. More than any other Members of Congress, Omar and Tlaib are regularly excoriated for their supposedly hypocritical, if not antisemitic, focus on the Jewish state. But Omar and Tlaib don’t only focus on the Jewish state. They’re as consistent in opposing US arms sales and military aid to Middle Eastern human rights abusers—Israeli and Arab alike—as the hawks at FDD are in supporting them. Last year, Omar proposed “calling out human rights violations wherever they are committed — whether it is by supposed allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates or by regimes like Iran or Syria.” This summer she introduced legislation “to make it illegal for the U.S. to continue to arm human rights abusers.” Tlaib’s views are similar. Pressed in 2019 on why she supports the Palestinian call to boycott Israel, she replied, “if there was an economic boycott around Saudi Arabia I’d be the first to support it…I would boycott Egypt.” (As I’ve noted, there is no analogue, so far, in either Saudi Arabia or Egypt to the boycott call issued by a broad cross-section of Palestinian civil society in 2005.) This June Tlaib tweeted, “Egypt is another country the US must halt all aid and arms sales to until they address and are held accountable for their many, ongoing human rights abuses.”

Beltway hawks might argue that they’re the greater champions of human rights in US adversaries like Iran and Syria. But if you only support human rights in those dictatorships engaged in geopolitical feuds with the US and Israel, it’s a good indicator that your real concern isn’t actually human rights. It’s geopolitics. Moreover, the way groups like FDD tend to “support” human rights in Iran is by advocating sanctions that devastate the civilians already suffering under Tehran’s brutal regime— sanctions that Iran’s human rights activists generally oppose.

Institutions like The Washington Institute and Foundation for Defense of Democracies—its name notwithstanding—are devoted not to democracy or human rights but to American and Israeli primacy in the Middle East. When Middle Eastern governments oppose that primacy, these Beltway hawks use human rights—or terrorism or nuclear proliferation or whatever other rationales they can find—to denounce and weaken them. But when regimes support an American and Israeli-dominated regional order, these concerns slip away. Which suggests that they weren’t particularly sincere in the first place.

Omar and Tlaib, by contrast, don’t distinguish very much between America’s friends and America’s enemies. They believe that all governments—Israel and the US included—are capable of terrible crimes, which if you’re Black, Muslim or Palestinian, is a pretty natural thing to believe. And they don’t think that leaders like Abdel Fattah El-Sisi or Mohamed Bin Zayed become benign simply just because they’ve chosen America and Israel’s side. They want the US to stop selling weapons to all governments that use them against innocent people, irrespective of the religion of the people who run those governments. And they want all governments—including America’s—to be subject to the accountability of international law, through institutions like the International Criminal Court.

What infuriates hawks, in other words, isn’t that Omar and Tlaib single Israel out for condemnation. It’s that they don’t single Israel out for impunity—nor do they single out America, or America and Israel’s Arab allies. They are neither Israeli nor American exceptionalists. Which is another way of saying that they believe in the universality of human rights.

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Other stuff:

During my conversation with Spencer, I asked him which journalists’ work he considers essential to understanding the “war on terror’s” impact on ordinary people around the world. Here are his recommendations:

Laila al-Arian, Rozina Ali, Mosharraf Zaidi, Azmat Khan, and Anand Gopal.

On October 14, I’m speaking at Tufts University. If you’re in the area, stop by.

See you Friday,

Peter