Israel is the only Middle Eastern country to rate as "free", according to the latest annual report by Freedom House, a top U.S.-based pro-democracy NGO. Israel is an anomaly in its region, with many of its neighbors receiving negative ratings, and Syria – until recently advocated by many foreign policy analysts as a potential peace partner for Jerusalem – one of nine countries described as the “worst of the worst.”
The evaluations will reinforce increasingly trenchant fears to the effect that political changes driven by the Arab Spring are replacing relatively secular autocracies not with liberal democracies but with theocratic autocracies.
Freedom House cited the Israeli government’s commitment to fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression, and the protection provided to a wide range of civil society organizations. Ranking as “free” under Freedom House’s criteria requires an environment of “open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, significant independent civic life, and independent media.”
While moving Egypt from “not free” to “partly free” in the wake of the country’s democratic transition, Freedom House noted “jarring setbacks” related to a series of institutional power grabs committed by the country’s Muslim Brotherhood-linked President Mohamed Morsi. In late 2012, Morsi issued a decree granting himself wide powers and insulating his office from judicial review. In an effort to defuse the ensuing crisis in political legitimacy, the country’s Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly passed a constitutional draft, subsequently passed by national referendum, which was heavily criticized for emphasizing strict Islamic law and for inadequately protecting the rights of women and minorities.
Israel’s neighbors Lebanon and Jordan remain partly free and not free, respectively, and Freedom House noted downward trends in both countries. Lebanon, where the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah politically controls the country and militarily dominates its south, was described as being in a downward trend due to “deterioration in the security environment and increasing attacks and restrictions on journalists, activists, and refugees.” Jordan is approaching a January 23 election that is increasingly becoming a political showdown between Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood officials and supporters of King Abdullah II. Freedom House noted that political reforms necessary to achieve a free society are unlikely to emerge.
Freedom House reserved some of its lowest rankings for governments that foreign policy analysts and diplomats have often emphasized as potential peace partners for Israel. Scholars have – over the course of decades – identified the political illegitimacy and radicalism of some of Israel’s potential negotiating partners as a key factor in preventing peace talks from moving forward.
Freedom House’s notes on Syria describe the country as “a dictatorship in the midst of a bloody civil war.” More than 60,000 people have died in the three-way proxy war between the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad, Sunni opposition forces backed by Arab states and Turkey, and Kurdish groups.
Both the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Iran-backed Palestinian terror group Hamas, and the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Fatah faction, were listed as “not free.” Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is in the eighth year of his four-year term. Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in a bloody 2007 coup that saw Fatah forces expelled, and has ruled the territory ever since. The United Nations General Assembly recently declared that both territories, listed as “not free” by Freedom House and under divided governments, were part of a single non-member state of Palestine. The political illegitimacy of both governments was highlighted by critics as one of several reasons – in addition to economic instability and a lack of control over non-government militias – for insisting that the United Nations declaration was at best premature.