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Peace and Democratization in a Changing Middle East

A new chapter is unfolding in the dramatic tapestry of the Middle East, marked by Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, and Israel’s unprecedented military response. This escalation has, for the first time, brought Israel under scrutiny for possible genocide charges before the International Court of Justice.

As global leaders push for a lasting resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, including the possible recognition of a Palestinian state, questions arise about the impact of such a move on the region’s authoritarian rulers and their quest for legitimacy on one side, and the future of Israel’s right-wing government and extremist right-wing leaders on the other. The long-overdue resolution of this issue could potentially alter the landscape of authoritarian regimes in the region that have long leveraged the conflict for their own ends. Could a peaceful resolution catalyze a democratic wave across the region?

A History of Struggle

The Middle East’s struggle for political freedom, peace, and stability has been long and fraught. The Arab Revolt of the early 20th century toppled Ottoman rule. European colonialism led to the division of the region and the creation of new nation-states. These states’ legitimacy has frequently been questioned. Except for a brief democratic interlude in Tunisia from 2011 to 2015, most Arab nations have lacked legitimate democratic mechanisms.

Cultural modernization efforts in the region have sometimes backfired, bolstering extremist ideologies. The emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-20th century, for instance, was a reaction to aggressive secularization efforts, mirroring the consequences of Iran’s 1979 revolution. The Middle East is immensely in need of democracy and a progressive interpretation of Islam; however, under the current conditions  radical Islamists can easily take advantage of lack of economic opportunity, opposition to Israel and to Western intervention, and disillusionment with the current system to spread their ideology. Islam has become a powerful rallying ideology due to the failure of Arab nationalism and of democratization. Excluding all Islamist politics from power altogether in response to these radical groups often brings more extremism. Like any other ideological current, Islamists should be incorporated within the system rather than excluded. To have progressive Islamists, peace and democratization in the Middle East are necessary.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Arab-Israeli conflicts reshaped the geopolitical map and contributed to entrenched authoritarianism in places like Iraq and Syria. The 1979 Iranian Revolution further complicated regional dynamics, with Iran and its Shi’ism becoming new focal points of existential concern for Arab Sunni states. These developments diverted attention from domestic reforms, with Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause overshadowing the push for democracy.

Despite the United States claiming to promote democracy in the Arab states, many of these nations’ autocratic leaders have managed to maintain power with American support, perpetuating undemocratic regimes. This strategy is not unique to the region; even Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has been accused of employing tactics similar to those of Arab tyrants and Tehran’s authoritarian leaders — such as leveraging conflicts like the Gaza war for political gain. Yet the US has remained supportive.

The early 21st century saw significant turmoil, including the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein but led to prolonged instability. The Arab Spring of 2010, with its wave of protests across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, promised change but sadly often resulted in civil strife and further authoritarianism.

Both the Palestinian issue and the Kurdish issue, another internationalized regional conflict, are the results of the division of the region by foreign powers and the imposition of nation-state models onto the region’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. The nation-state model does not function in the mosaicity and diversity of the Middle East. Right-wing and nationalist governments and politicians who see nation-state structures as sacred have often failed to advance their nations. Therefore, they resort to policies of division and oppression to remain in power while their nation-states suffer from severe socio-economic crises in their societies.

Despite these challenges, there is a call for optimism and a push towards democratization, especially among the youth. The region aspires for democracy, job creation, social and economic justice, and visionary leadership. In this rapidly changing world, the hope lies in the belief that the people of the Middle East will no longer accept deception and silence, signaling a potential dawn of a new era of democratization and peace.

lasting peace

A just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace could pave the way for a more democratic Middle East in several ways.

First, ending the conflict would end the ability of Arab autocrats to use it to legitimize authoritarian rule and could challenge the chauvinistic basis of Arab nationalism. Despite economic booms fueled by oil in monarchies like Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia,  the younger generation craves more than just prosperity. The resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict could pivot the Arab diaspora’s focus towards democracy in their ancestral lands—a sentiment already causing unease among autocrats, as evidenced by the tragic assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in 2019. It could also reduce Iran’s justification for its regional aggression and internal repression. The 2022 uprising in Iran shows that many segments of society are dissatisfied with authoritarian, fundamentalist rule. The path towards a peaceful resolution, therefore, might not only redefine Israel-Palestine relations but also usher in a new era of democratization across the region.

Peace between Israel and Palestine could also enable a less destabilizing U.S. role in the region. Washington could move away from its longstanding policy of supporting regional despots in order to secure Israel’s safety. A democratic shift was seen during the Arab Spring, only to be quickly pulled back to the traditional U.S. policy of support for regional autocracies. Many believed that this happened, in part, because Washington feared that democratic governments in the Arab world would be more assertive in their support for Palestinian aspirations.

Unconditional support for Israel and for authoritarian Arab governments impacts U.S. standing and interests in the region in ways that have serious policy consequences. Overall, the U.S. does not have a good reputation in the Middle East—simply because its main allies there have the worst human rights records. The groups that find political benefit from Washington’s approach are not only Israel’s right-wing government and politicians, but also leaders like Erdogan and Khameini and radical Islamist groups. In general terms, instability and conflict in the region shaped by foreign intervention and the non-resolution of fundamental political problems often have outsize consequences. For example, ISIS was partly an outcome of the failed Arab Spring. When people lost hope for justice and democracy in the future, radical Islamist groups were able to exploit the vacuum. Similarly, it is unlikely that Hamas would have ever existed if a political resolution to the Palestinian issue had been reached before the 1990s.

Lessons for Turkey and the Kurds?

The establishment of a Palestinian state and the cementing of peace between Israel and Palestine, alongside a parallel accord with Arab nations, could also create momentum for a resolution to the Kurdish dilemma in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Turkey’s actions in Syria and its crackdown on Kurdish aspirations have complicated regional dynamics, undermining hopes for peace and stability. A resolution to the Kurdish question could also contribute positively to democratization in the region, undermining authoritarian rulers and limiting the harmful impacts of foreign intervention.

When the peace talks between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government reached a peak in 2009-2015, Turkey’s democracy also developed. The moment the peace talks collapsed, though, Turkey returned to point zero. Thousands of people were exiled, tens of thousands were put in prison, and the country veered close to civil war. Without addressing the Palestinian and Kurdish questions, discussions of lasting peace, let alone democratization in the Middle East, remain speculative. Democracy’s viability hinges on peace; without it, the concept falters.

Turks, Kurds, Israelis, and Palestinians can look to previous peace processes and their failures to find lessons for the future. It is notable that Israeli-Palestinian and Turkish-Kurdish peace processes began in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the arrival of a new global order.  Both rounds of negotiations failed to lead to lasting solutions. The unipolar moment itself may have shaped this dynamic: as both Turkey and Israel were members of the one remaining hegemonic bloc, Kurds and Palestinians were at a disadvantage in negotiations. The more multipolar system that exists today could help lead to better outcomes, as a greater array of states could be involved in supporting a balanced peace.

These four nations can also look to history to understand that political problems do not have military solutions. The best days of the Turkish Republic were the times when prospects of peace were high. Following the collapse of the peace talks in 2015, Turkey has gone through a coup, violence, war, and the worst economic crisis of its history. Palestinians are not an existential threat to the spirit of Israel, as Yuval Harari recently remarked. Neither are Kurds an existential threat to the spirit of Turkey. The main existential threats are authoritarian regimes, far-right nationalists, and religious fundamentalists who use conflict to maintain power.

(Photo: “The Green Anthem Peace Sign” by dyniss is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

About the Author

Kamal Chomani

Non-Resident Fellow

Kamal Chomani is a Ph.D. student at the University of Leipzig in Germany, focusing on political legitimacy in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Erfur…

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