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Will Israel further normalize relations with its Arab neighbors?

My research finds that closer ties with Israel means Arab regimes have new tools to repress their own citizens.

- July 10, 2022

As President Biden prepares to visit Saudi Arabia to meet with nine Arab leaders, Saudi, American and Israeli media have reported that talks of a broader normalization are underway. In June 2022, the U.S. envoy to combat antisemitism traveled to Saudi Arabia to encourage such talks, and Israeli officials have floated the prospect of a U.S.-led regional security agreement between Israel and some Arab Gulf nations. Biden has emphasized Israel’s security even more than oil as a reason for his visit.

The 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (along with Bahrain and Morocco), is the centerpiece of this regional security vision. The increased security coordination, as well as rising bilateral trade rates, have led some analysts to conclude that “peace is taking off.”

But normalization is not about peace, per se. The countries normalizing relations were not at war with Israel previously, and the process has rolled ahead without progress toward Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

My research on the Abraham Accords, as well as other normalization steps between Israel and Arab governments, shows that such agreements can have a negative impact on conditions within participating countries. Specifically, these kinds of agreements facilitate the sharing of technologies such as digital surveillance spyware, which can enable authoritarian regimes to increase repression. Normalization with Israel can also be a way for Arab countries to win credit with Washington without making domestic policy changes on issues such as human rights and political prisoners.

The regional security framework Biden reportedly aims to construct might be better understood, in this light, not as a peace agreement but as a form of authoritarian conflict management. For the citizens of countries that join, domestic conditions may worsen.

Surveillance technology partnerships are on the rise

Normalized relations between Israel and its new partners involve an economic component. The Israel Central Bureau of Statistics recently released bilateral trade figures showing an almost 120 percent increase in bilateral trade with the UAE since last year, and a 40 percent jump in Israel-Morocco trade.

The increases in bilateral trade reflect, to a large extent, expanded connections between countries like the UAE and the Israeli defense industry. Emirati investments in Israeli surveillance and hacking companies have increased, along with partnerships between Emirati and Israeli businesses.

This has facilitated greater Emirati acquisition of repressive technologies — including spyware tools and surveillance drones — that Arab governments can then use to harass activists and dissidents at home and abroad. One prominent example is the case of Alaa al-Siddiq, an Emirati activist living in exile in London, who reported being hacked by the UAE government using Israeli software a few weeks before her death in a car crash.

On the Israeli side, such investments and new markets help boost the Israeli military industrial complex’s ability to develop new tools and methods, despite a U.S. blacklist on companies such as the NSO Group.

Gulf states repress pro-Palestinian sentiment

Surveys — and my field research — show that Arab publics remain, by a large majority, pro-Palestine. Citizens in Arab countries generally oppose normalization with Israel before the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Government-led normalization, in fact, often entails staving off any dissent from citizens.

A wide range of research has shown that the Palestinian issue mobilizes Arab publics. There’s a domestic component to this: The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict pushes citizens in Arab countries to demand greater accountability from their governments, and thus poses a risk to authoritarian control.

This dynamic is also evident in the countries that have normalized relations with Israel. In Bahrain, the government took steps to limit public outrage over the Abraham Accords by passing new civil service bylaws forbidding government employees (a sizable portion of the population) from expressing opinions contradictory to official foreign policy. In the UAE, government officials encouraged citizens and residents to use a designated app to report on one another for the crime of opposing official government policy. Following the signing of the accords, both governments were swift to stifle dissent. In Bahrain, for instance, the government disbanded protests and shut down events such as panel discussions and lectures on Palestine.

Social ties in normalizing countries appear to be fraying as a result of this repression. Activists from the UAE report that fear of punishment has led families to cut ties with their relatives who have spoken out about these issues. Similarly, in Bahrain, citizens note that public expression is “more restricted than it was in the past” and that people are “confused,” unsure of who is safe to speak to.

Will new conflicts emerge?

Given these trends, regional normalization agreements do not mean that peace has arrived in the Middle East — or that parties have ceased to be in conflict. Instead, the region’s authoritarians seem to be using foreign policy to help keep a lid on domestic opposition.

There is also a risk of inflaming new conflicts. The increased security coordination within the region allows Israel to ignore the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and the denial of Palestinian self-determination. Palestinians find themselves increasingly isolated from their Arab neighbors and less hopeful about the possibility for a two-state solution.

And Israel may feel emboldened to take faster and more aggressive steps, including annexing Palestinian territory and confiscating property. That could trigger more violence, similar to the East Jerusalem protests and Israeli crackdowns last summer.

The UAE and other regimes that have normalized relations with Israel may think that increased repression and official propaganda will eventually change minds. But a new generation of activists in the Arab world is increasingly making the connection between its struggles for democracy and accountability, and the ongoing injustices to Palestinians. Moreover, the region’s history attests to the impact of the Palestinian conflict on broader political mobilization, including during the Arab Spring a decade ago. As such, the Abraham Accords could be creating the very problems it claims to overcome.

Dana El Kurd (@danaelkurd) is an assistant professor at the University of Richmond and a nonresident senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington. She is author of “Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine” (Oxford University Press, 2020).