President Isaac Herzog is in the UAE this week, marking the first visit by an Israeli head of state to the Gulf country. With Herzog’s trip to the Emirates came the same criticism that has followed the Abraham Accords from some quarters since their inception under the Trump administration—that these are simply deals struck between Israel and regional autocrats while leaving the Palestinians behind.

“For years, supporters of Israel trumpeted the fact that Israel was a democracy surrounded by dictatorships. But as soon as those dictatorships got onboard with Israel and its occupation, suddenly it’s ‘wow’ look at our national anthem being played in the dictator’s palace,” MSNBC’s Medhi Hasan quipped on Twitter. “To be clear,” Hasan continued, “I’m in favor of MidEast countries getting along peacefully, I just am astonished at the sheer cynicism when it comes to the Abraham Accords, signed with dictators not representative governments and I don’t think ‘peace’ should come at the expense of the Palestinians.”

For all of the attention the deals with the four Arab governments received, Israel’s oldest and deepest relationships are with liberal democracies in North America and Western Europe. Its top trading partners—with the obvious exception of China, though this is not a uniquely Israeli problem—all fit this category. Still, it is certainly jarring to see how, after the Abraham Accords, many in the U.S. and Israel quickly embraced the new normalizers, the UAE in particular, as islands of tolerance, ignoring their shoddy human rights records. Any government that bars one of its citizens from leaving the country because they criticize its foreign policy—as the UAE did with Dhabiya Khamis, an anti-normalization writer, in 2020—should not be hailed as forward-thinking or open. This isn’t a new dynamic—repressive Azerbaijan has made a strategy of courting support in Washington on the basis of its good relations with Israel and the fact that Baku does not persecute its citizens for being Jewish.

But critics like Hasan have the other part of the formula backwards: their line of reasoning is that normalization is cynical statecraft and bad for the Palestinians. So was what came before—the old status quo of non-recognition of Israel—somehow more sincere and better for the Palestinians? Going through the motions of opposition to Israel and Zionism is one of the oldest tricks in the Middle Eastern dictator’s playbook. Leaders exploit sympathy for the Palestinians and latent antisemitism to distract from internal problems and undemocratic governance while delivering little in the way of substance on the Palestine question. Israel provided a convenient boogeyman for Syria’s infamous “emergency law,” which gave official sanction to dictatorial rule for nearly half a century. The Emiratis’ current heavy-handedness with critics of the Abraham Accords only replaces an equally draconian Israel boycott law, which threatened violators with up to ten years in prison. If we are going to call normalization with Israel “repressive diplomacy,” as Peter Beinart dubbed it, then we should acknowledge that non-recognition was also guided by authoritarian impulses.  

Domestic repression in the name of an anti-Israel crusade didn’t necessarily mean all Arab governments lacked contacts with Israel, of course. Even normalization’s harshest detractors acknowledge that in many respects, the Abraham Accords formalized preexisting relationships. The Arab League relaxed its boycott of Israel nearly thirty years ago, effectively withdrawing the secondary boycott (targeting international firms that did business with Israel) after the Oslo Accords. Several Gulf states extended public outreach to Israel, however limited, decades before the Abraham Accords were signed. Israel never embraced the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which conditioned relations on an end to the occupation and a two-state solution, and the API’s sponsors never did much to pressure Israel in that direction. Well before the Abraham Accords were announced, the Emiratis were already feuding with the Palestinian Authority/PLO over de facto UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed’s relationship with Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian ex-security chief whom Mahmoud Abbas had exiled a decade ago. The Israeli firm NSO Group’s problematic sales of its Pegasus spyware to Arab dictatorships also predate the Abraham Accords too. There is plenty to criticize in the substance of these relations, but it is not much different from what existed before. What has changed with normalization is generally good: take, for example, the UAE’s harder line against antisemitism. It doesn’t excuse dictatorship in the Gulf or military occupation in the West Bank, but it is pretty significant for a country that was hawking The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a political science book just a few years ago.

Part of the problem here is an assumption that the normalizing Arab states viewed their relations with Israel solely through the prism of the Palestinian conflict. These governments have priorities in other areas like the Iranian threat or the perceived U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. Demanding they subsume those interests to those of the Palestinians by holding back on normalization is a losing game. Plenty of people criticize governments across the globe for their policies toward Israel, but few—including the Palestinain leadership—seriously object to the mere existence of relations between Israel and say, Brazil, or Russia, or Germany, and so on, yet officials in Ramallah lashed out following the signing of the Abraham Accords and have nothing to show for it—possibly less than nothing, given how the UAE slashed UNRWA funding after an upward trend in contributions over the past few years. Five decades ago, many countries, including large parts of the developing world, Eastern Europe, and major powers like China and the Soviet Union, lacked official ties with Israel. Today, the shrinking number of states without relations with Israel are the outliers, not the other way around. Israel and its American supporters do not need to extol the virtues of authoritarian partners, but the expectation that Arab and Muslim states would uniformly buck the trend of greater normalization with Israel sets the Palestinian side up for disappointment while unduly glorifying a policy of non-recognition.