The Desert Autocracy Conference

Last Sunday, Israel entered a state of mania. Within three days, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid succeeded in organizing a regional conference in Sde Boker with the participation of foreign ministers of four Arab countries, and in the presence of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. That same evening, this mood darkened following the murderous campaign of two Umm al-Fahm residents in the Israeli city of Hadera, and on Tuesday it darkened further due to the murder spree of a West Bank resident in Bnei Brak.

This is the Israeli reality that has accompanied us for over twenty years. Yes, we live with “shrapnel in the butt.” The current prime minister came up with this metaphor back in 2013, when he explained that Israelis must get used to the fact that there is no solution to the Palestinian question, and it should be treated as “shrapnel in the butt” that cannot be removed and must be lived with.

The countries that decided to normalize relations with Israel seem to have warmly embraced Bennett’s position and, with the encouragement of former US President Donald Trump, jumped on the peace bandwagon. Not out of love for Mordechai, but from hatred of the Persian Haman. The Palestinians have thus been transformed from a problem that preoccupied the Arab world for decades into an internal Israeli problem, and Bennett’s new Arab partners can only look sadly from the sidelines at their new friend’s entanglement with this unresolved problem.

Each of the countries that came to Sde Boker is carrying its own shrapnel: the Emirates are carrying the war in Yemen, the Moroccans the conflict with the Polisario Front, the Egyptians the conflict with Ethiopia around the al-Nahda dam on the Nile, while Bahrain is facing a Shiite majority fighting for full civil rights. What unites them with Israel is hostility toward the Biden administration which, unlike Trump and Netanyahu, strives to renew the nuclear agreement with Iran, in their eyes abandoning them.

There is no doubt the Sde Boker conference was challenging for Anthony Blinken, who came to the Middle East straight from Poland. He had previously accompanied President Biden on a round of meetings with NATO allies in Brussels, aimed at uniting ranks against Putin. In fact, the whole of Europe is today facing the most fateful confrontation since the end of World War II. Putin, an uninhibited and bloodthirsty dictator, decided to redraw Europe’s borders by invading Ukraine, with the aim of overturning its democratic regime.

From the beginning of his tenure, Biden defined the current historical period as a struggle between autocracy and democracy. It should not be forgotten that the United States itself underwent Donald Trump’s coup attempt after he refused to recognize the election results and tried to overturn them by violence. Blinken may have been sitting around the same table in Sde Boker, scattering smiles, but he understood that he was facing a hostile front, unwilling to mobilize in favor of the American effort.

Most politicians in Israel admire Donald Trump, the engineer of the “Abraham Accords” and the one who abolished the nuclear agreement with Iran. In Israel, Biden’s division of the world into democracies and autocracies is seen as naive at best, and despicable at worst. The Chinese and Russian regimes are partners of paramount importance to Israel, and the Arab regimes constitute a guarantee of its security. Democracy is the biggest enemy of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which vigorously suppress any democratic movement in the Arab world, as we saw after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Dubai highlights the Gulf states’ commitment to the region’s tyrants. Their regimes are not just allies, but an important component of Israel’s national security.

It is no coincidence that Israel and its Arab partners refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Saudi Arabia, for example, is openly working to thwart sanctions against Putin by refusing to increase oil production, which would compensate for the price rises suffered by those who boycott Russia. Like Putin, both Saudi Arabia and Israel hope Trump will return to power in 2024. While the world is mobilizing to save democracy in the war against Putin, Israel is busy organizing regional conferences as a front against Iran and the Biden government.

Israel and the Gulf states are attempting to convince the world that Putin is their friend and ally, while Iran is the true existential danger. The fact that Putin invaded a neighboring country without provocation, and is preparing the ground for using weapons of mass destruction there, is not discussed in Israel. The danger of a third world war does not worry the Israeli leadership. It is currently at war with Iran, which aims to produce nukes in the future, whereas Israel, according to foreign publications, holds dozens, if not hundreds, of them. The ruthless dictator Putin is also waving nuclear bombs—5000 of them. Thus, while celebrating regional peace, Israeli leaders ignore the collapse of world peace.

Israel’s complete disregard for the Palestinians living under occupation, as well as for the murderous nature of its allied Arab regimes, explain its neutral stance in the current war on European soil between democracy and tyranny. Israel is becoming disconnected from the democratic world as a result of the apartheid regime it imposes in the West Bank and Gaza. Its moral compass has gone ever more awry, while it explains away its rights violations with security needs and the need to preserve the Jewish character of the state. Thus, every leader, even if he is a dictator and a murderer, becomes a desirable ally, from Donald Trump to Putin, from Mohammed bin Salman to Abd al-Fattah el-Sisi, provided he is willing to ignore crimes against the Palestinians. In contrast, any democratic leader who condemns abuses in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Israel becomes an enemy and an anti-Semite.

Donald Trump has committed criminal acts. He connected with the white supremacy movement, forged close ties with Putin, tried to dismantle NATO and the European Union, and most importantly, tried to dismantle democracy in America itself. All of this left the American people, the sane and liberal majority, in a state of deep trauma. Biden’s fight against Putin is a war for the soul of American democracy and world peace, so for the first time since World War II he has managed to create a very broad front to stop Putin.

It is not Iran that has worked to bring Trump to power and to collapse American democracy, but Putin, Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman. It is no wonder that the Biden administration is working resolutely to settle the Iranian nuclear issue through an agreement, directing all resources against those who truly endanger world peace. Israel, with its decades-long occupation and its discriminatory laws against Arab citizens, cannot partner in a camp that fights for the soul of democracy.

The world today is changing diskette. It understands that economic interests cannot come at the expense of fundamental principles like freedom and human rights, because in the end such a process brings an end to democracy. Israel is in the process of disengaging from this new world while still reciting clichés about its “special” situation. It is not a state like all other states, but a Jewish state. This bizarre self-definition entails imposing an apartheid regime and enacting racist laws to preserve its Jewish character. In other words, its Jewish character outweighs its democratic character. This is why, when the future of humanity is being determined – either autocracy or democracy – Israel remains “neutral.”

About Yacov Ben Efrat