Netanyahu Used to Say Democracy Is the Only Path to Mideast Peace. What Happened?

In his first term, Netanyahu was a neocon hawk who dreamed of foisting democracy on the Middle East. The alliance he’s forged with monarchist regimes shows the scale of the transformation he’s undergone

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
The sultan of Oman with Benjamin Netanyahu.
The sultan of Oman with Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Oman News Agency / AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

In July 1996, shortly after he was first elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. There he set forth the three foundations for any future peace agreement in our region: security, mutuality and democratization. He dwelt in particular on the third element.

“Modern democracies do not incite aggression,” he explained, adding, “Unless we want more Saddams to rise, we must apply the standards of democracy and human rights in the Middle East… It is time for the states of the Middle East to put the issues of human rights and democratization on their agenda. Democratization means accepting a free press and the right of a legal opposition to organize and express itself.”

The premier later reiterated the need for democratization if a stable regional peace is to be forged. Since then, however, 24 years have passed, a good portion of which Netanyahu has spent in the prime minister’s residence, and the value of democracy seems to be less urgent to him. In recent years, his regional policy has been based principally on forging close cooperation with sultans, princes and kings. Two weeks ago, he announced the establishment of relations with the United Arab Emirates – a group of dynastic monarchies whose regime is based on sharia law. He also developed warm relations with the sultan of Oman.

There’s nothing surprising about the fact that Netanyahu changed his approach regarding the need for democratization in the Middle East. Indeed, over all his years in power, he has reversed his views on many subjects. To be fair, it has to be said that reality, too, has changed in the meantime. But his move away from insistence that regional peace is contingent upon all our neighbors being democracies is closely connected to a more general shift in his political philosophy and of the model of governance that he has adopted.

In his first term as premier, Netanyahu could be called a neocon. That stream of American political thought, which resonated widely in the Republican Party, advocated an aggressive foreign policy aimed at spreading U.S.-style liberal democracy around the globe. Neoconservatism is also associated with the idea of a civilizational clash between the West and Islam.

The neocons reached the peak of their influence during the administrations of President George W. Bush, when they played a significant role in the decision to invade Iraq. But America’s failure in that war marked the start of the decline of this approach. President Barack Obama depicted the Iraq invasion as a disaster and sought to tone down talk about a struggle between the civilizations and to put an end to the neocon crusade against tyrannical regimes in the Middle East.

The election of Donald Trump put the Republicans back in the White House, but neocon ideology remained far from the centers of power. Trump was even less enthusiastic than Obama about regime-change wars, and he displays indifference to the democratic records of other world leaders. Human rights simply do not interest him. An incidental remark he made in April, in response to a request that he wear a face mask because of the coronavirus outbreak, epitomizes his attitude toward the subject: “I think that wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself.”

In fact, Trump’s attitude toward despotic regimes goes beyond indifference. In some cases, he seems to admire them. At the beginning of his term, he squabbled with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – but in a quick about-face, he didn’t hesitate to heap praise upon him and express admiration for his “great and beautiful vision for his country.” Earlier this month veteran journalist Bob Woodward revealed passages from the correspondence of the two leaders, which he described as a “love story.” Trump himself disclosed that he “fell in love” with Kim. He was equally effusive about the Saudi king, Salman, when he visited the region in 2017.

The enthusiasm shown by Trump and other anti-liberal leaders in the West for tyrants in the Middle East and Asia is the continuation of a venerable tradition. Early political thinkers in ancient Greece, for example, juxtaposed the notions of citizenship and freedom in their state with the despotic subjugation of the kingdom of Persia. In their conception, the latter regime was based on master-slave relations.At the same time, an antidemocratic stream existed in Athens that extolled the Persian monarchy – a political entity that was a bitter enemy of the Athenians. Thus writer and military commander Xenophon revered King Cyrus, while at the same time scorning Athenian democracy. On the other hand, the Athenian democratic party generally pursued an aggressive foreign policy.

The tension between antipathy toward the Persian monarchy and admiration for it also found expression in the period of Alexander the Great. He took up arms against Persia and defeated the empire, but at the same time adopted many of the titles, symbols and traits of its regime. In large measure, Alexander himself can be said to have become an oriental ruler.

Admiration for what was called “oriental despotism” also existed in the Roman Empire, where emperors crowned themselves gods, as was the custom in Eastern kingdoms. This tradition appeared in a different incarnation in Christian Europe as well. Italian humanists lauded the Mongolian conqueror Timur Lang, while French humanist Jean Bodin glorified the Ottoman sultan. These scholars showed greater interest in the oriental cultures and were more sympathetic toward them than their colleagues who harbored republican tendencies.

A court of your own

Politically, the more that rulers distanced themselves from republican and liberal ideals, the more they adopted the style of an oriental court. Concurrently, they displayed admiration for the autocratic form of rule that was associated with the oriental kingdoms. A similar process is gaining momentum in our time – as seen in Trump and also his admirer Netanyahu. Together with his fondness for kings and dictators, Trump has designed his administration as a sort of royal court, in which his daughter and his son-in-law play central roles.

Netanyahu, for his part, has long since dropped any concern for human rights and a free press from his agenda. The neocon advisers and diplomats with whom he surrounded himself in the past, such as Dore Gold or Michael Oren, have been displaced from centers of influence. At the same time, the premier has created for himself a court packed with exotic sycophants. He also seems to be cultivating the political culture of a royal dynasty. Various reports in the past few years attest to the central role reserved for his wife and his son in decision-making processes.

But just when Netanyahu seemed to have reached the basest level in terms of his disparaging attitude toward democracy and the rule of law, he brought about a diplomatic agreement with the UAE, which could extend to other states. This, too, reflects a type of geopolitical integration into the region. In contrast, the neocon line led to the biggest wars here in recent decades. Anyone who’s leery of wars needs to beware precisely of those who hoist the banner of democracy.

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