As Biden heads to the Middle East, ‘normalization’ is all the rage
The 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (as well as Bahrain and Morocco), are the centerpiece of this regional security vision. Increased security coordination, as well as rising bilateral trade rates, have led some analysts to conclude that “peace takes flight.”
But normalization is not a matter of peace in itself. The countries normalizing their relations were not at war with Israel before, and the process proceeded without progress towards the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
My research on the Abraham Accords, as well as other stages of normalization between Israel and Arab governments, shows that such agreements can negatively impact conditions in participating countries. Specifically, these types of agreements facilitate the sharing of technologies such as digital surveillance spyware, which can enable authoritarian regimes to increase repression. Normalization with Israel may also be a way for Arab countries to gain credit with Washington without making domestic policy changes on issues such as human rights and political prisoners.
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The regional security framework that Biden would aim to build could best be understood, in this light, not as a peace agreement but as a form of authoritarian conflict management. For citizens of acceding countries, domestic conditions may worsen.
Surveillance technology partnerships are on the rise
The normalized relations between Israel and its new partners include an economic component. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics recently released two-way trade figures showing an almost 120% increase in two-way trade with the UAE since last year, and a 40% increase in trade between Israel and the Morocco.
The increase in bilateral trade reflects, to a large extent, the expanding ties between countries like the UAE and the Israeli defense industry. Emirati investments in Israeli surveillance and hacking companies have increased, as well as partnerships between Emirati and Israeli companies.
This has facilitated greater acquisition by the Emirates of law enforcement technology – including spyware and surveillance drones – which Arab governments can then use to harass activists and dissidents at home and abroad. A stark example is the case of Alaa al-Siddiq, an Emirati activist living in exile in London, who said she was hacked by the UAE government using Israeli software weeks before her death in a car accident.
On the Israeli side, such investments and new markets are helping to bolster the ability of Israel’s military-industrial complex to develop new tools and methods, despite a US blacklist of companies such as the NSO Group.
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Surveys – and my field research – show that Arab audiences remain overwhelmingly pro-Palestine. Citizens of Arab countries generally oppose normalization with Israel before the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, government-led normalization often involves avoiding citizen dissent.
A wide range of research has shown that the Palestinian issue mobilizes Arab publics. There is an internal component to this: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is pushing citizens of Arab countries to demand greater accountability from their governments, and thus poses a risk for authoritarian control.
This dynamic is also evident in countries that have normalized their relations with Israel. In Bahrain, the government has taken steps to limit public outrage over the Abraham Accords by adopting new civil service statutes prohibiting government employees (a significant portion of the population) from expressing contrary views. to official foreign policy. In the United Arab Emirates, government officials encouraged citizens and residents to use a designated app to report each other for the crime of opposing official government policy. After the accords were signed, the two governments were quick to stifle dissent. In Bahrain, for example, the government has dissolved protests and shut down events such as roundtables and conferences on Palestine.
Social ties in countries in the process of normalization seem to be eroding as a result of this repression. Activists in the United Arab Emirates report that fear of punishment has led families to cut ties with loved ones who have spoken out about the issues. Similarly, in Bahrain, citizens note that public expression is “more restricted than it was in the past” and that people are “confused”, not knowing who to talk to safely.
Will new conflicts emerge?
Given these trends, regional normalization agreements do not mean that peace has arrived in the Middle East – or that the parties have ceased to be in conflict. Instead, the region’s authoritarians appear to be using foreign policy to help contain domestic opposition.
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There is also a risk of inflaming new conflicts. Increased security coordination in 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 have less hope for the possibility of a two-state solution.
And Israel can feel encouraged to take quicker and more aggressive action, including annexing Palestinian territory and confiscating property. It could spark more violence, like 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 their minds. But a new generation of activists in the Arab world are increasingly linking their struggles for democracy and accountability to the ongoing injustices against Palestinians. Moreover, the region’s history bears witness to the impact of the Palestinian conflict on a broader political mobilization, notably during the Arab Spring ten years ago. As such, the Abraham Accords could create the very problems they claim to overcome.
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Dana El Kurde (@danaelkurd) is an assistant professor at the University of Richmond and nonresident senior scholar at the Arab Center Washington. She is author of “Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine” (Oxford University Press, 2020).