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The New Middle East: Welcome to the End of Liberal History

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Netanyahu during an interview with Sky News Arabia on Monday, August 17, 2020.
Netanyahu during an interview with Sky News Arabia on Monday, August 17, 2020.Credit: Sky News Arabia
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

A seemingly insignificant slip of the tongue by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a rare interview with Sky News Arabia on Monday revealed our generation’s tectonic shift – one bigger than the peace now breaking out between Israel and the Arab world. The United Arab Emirates and Israel, he said, are both “advanced democracies.”


Netanyahu, who sees himself as a liberal in the most basic sense of the word and was educated in America at the time when liberal values still had meaning, is simply used to that narrative from his many speeches about Israel’s relations with other countries. He was on automatic pilot. But this time, oops, it was a mistake.

Israel is making peace with a country that’s anything but a democracy. And the narrative Israel loved marketing to the liberal world for so many years – about peace between democracies and about being the only democracy in the Middle East – has become completely unnecessary in the new world order, in which liberal values are becoming less and less important in international relations.

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This is the real geopolitical earthquake of our generation. The liberal narrative that Western nations sold themselves, which some will say is false anyway, is being replaced before our very eyes with a new world order that’s reflected above all in the intensifying conflict between the U.S. and China.

Ever since the doctrines of liberalism gained prominence, and even more so after the shock of World War II and the optimism that followed the end of the Cold War, they have played a critical role in shaping the world order and international relations. The need for international cooperation and theses about the connections between democracy, peace and capitalism proliferated in the public conversation.

But since then, Francis Fukuyama, father of the “end of history” theory, has lost big-time to Samuel Huntington and his “Clash of Civilizations.” Or in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “The liberal idea has become obsolete” and “outlived its purpose.” This, of course, is the same Putin who currently controls Israel’s northern border as part of Russia’s return to the region.

On the other side of the globe, America under President Donald Trump no longer presumes to impose democratic values on the world. Capitalism is enough. And in Europe, the rise of global terrorism and waves of migration have clashed forcibly with the vision of abolishing borders and put questions of identity and nationalism – or as Trump termed it, “patriotism” versus “globalism” – back on the agenda.

Netanyahu during the interview with Sky News Arabia on Monday, August 17, 2020.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

In recent years, Netanyahu has exploited this challenge to the liberal democratic order, into which Israel never naturally fit, to forge new alliances with like-minded leaders – Trump in America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban and Andrzej Duda in Hungary and Poland, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. To the extent that Washington permitted it, he has even wooed Xi Jinping in China. And these are only examples.

Anywhere conservative power centers can be found in this alliance of illiberals or worse, Israel will naturally seek to connect to them. This alliance is based not only on illiberal values, but on illiberal quid pro quos – from joint efforts to undermine international law and multinational institutions to trade in technologies used to track down opponents of the regimes. 

Iran and Turkey are prominent players in the anti-liberal alliance that Israel apparently won’t be able to recruit to its side anytime soon. How disappointing.

Foreign Ministry veterans of Israel’s relationship with South Africa will say this isn’t anything new, and they’re right. But it’s definitely expanding. Moreover, there’s no longer any need to try to hide it.

These global developments aren’t unrelated to Israel’s emerging peace with the new Middle East and Africa. It is currently spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates, but other countries will presumably be joining. 

Israel has no qualms about selling dubious technology to the UAE and will never criticize its system of government. Ditto for Saudi Arabia. Just like it won’t launch a campaign to defend human rights in Hong Kong or oppose the persecution of gays in Brazil and Poland.

After all, how could Israel shoot itself in the foot by promoting such liberal values when it’s accused of violating human rights itself? It does so only in the Foreign Ministry’s whitewashing tweets lauding what happens in the state of Tel Aviv, not in Israel’s actual foreign relations.

A view of the Dubai Creek from Al Seef in Dubai, UAE, on February 21, 2020. Credit: Ritu Manoj Jethani / Shutterstoc

This is the point where someone usually says, “Yeah, the Palestinians aren't really liberal.” True, they aren’t. But with the Palestinians, we have no choice but to seek an arrangement; they’re simply here. What’s our excuse for the rest of the world? The “whataboutism” that has become so popular here doesn’t solve any problems; it merely emphasises others.

Amid this emerging trend, and in the run-up to the U.S. elections, which will have a major impact on it, one paradox deserves attention. Sometimes, democratic procedures are what has enabled democracy to be stripped of its substantive values. Or in other words, sometimes the majority freely votes against liberal democratic values. 

Israel, too, is still a democracy in the sense that it holds elections - and Benjamin Netanyahu keeps winning them. As in other places in the world, a majority of Israelis has repeatedly elected a candidate who has made a career of illiberal alliances. That’s exactly what Fareed Zakaria meant when he wrote that “Illiberal democracies gain legitimacy, and thus strength, from the fact that they are reasonably democratic.”

None of this means that Israel shouldn’t aspire to forge diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible, including the UAE. But it is necessary to look at the trend honestly: We have proudly joined the illiberal club. As the occupation deepens, creating a growing need to dismantle the old liberal order, we evidently have no other choice in any case.

So welcome to the democracy of the UAE; they say there are great malls there. And also to the beginning of the end of liberal history.

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