Academic experts believe that Middle East politics are actually getting worse

A military vehicle is pictured in front of the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia  July 26, 2021. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
Editor's note:

A year after the Abraham Accords, what do scholars of the Middle East think about the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab nations and prospects for peace in the region? The newest results from the Middle East Scholar Barometer reveals some interesting results. This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.

A year after the Abraham Accords came into effect, what do scholars of the Middle East think about the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE and several other Arab nations? Is a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians still possible? And what’s the latest on Tunisia’s constitutional crisis — do scholars consider it a coup against democracy?

Last month, we fielded the second round of the Middle East Scholar Barometer, a unique survey of scholars with expertise in the Middle East. As far as we know, this is the only survey of its kind.

Who we surveyed

The MESB surveys the opinions of academic experts on the Middle East that include members of the American Political Science Association’s Middle East and North Africa Politics Section and the Middle East Studies Association. The vast majority of these experts speak regional languages, have spent significant time in the Middle East and have dedicated their professional lives to the rigorous study of the region and its politics.

We identified 1,290 such scholars and got a 43 percent response rate from Aug. 26 to Sept. 9. A total of 557 scholars responded, divided almost equally between political scientists and scholars from other disciplines. Eighty percent of those participating in this round also participated in our first survey in February.

Scholars describe Israel/Palestinian territories as akin to apartheid

The percentage of scholars who say that a two-state Israel-Palestine solution is no longer possible increased by five percentage points, from 52 percent to 57 percent. And the percentage of scholars who describe the current situation as “a one state reality akin to apartheid” grew even faster, from 59 percent in February to 65 percent in this latest poll.

This increase is remarkably robust across the poll’s demographics: male and female respondents, political scientists or nonpolitical scientists, APSA and MESA members, respondents based in the United States or elsewhere, and those who participated in our first survey in February and those who didn’t.

What explains such a significant increase in less than seven months? While it’s impossible to know for sure, two notable events intervened between the two surveys. First, the crisis in Israel following planned evictions of Palestinian families from their Jerusalem homes showed graphically the unequal treatment of Jews and Palestinians under Israeli control. The subsequent Gaza fighting between Israel and Hamas further focused global attention.

Second, two human rights organizations — the Israeli-based B’Tselem and the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch — released widely read reports. The B’Tselem findings describe the reality in Israel and the Palestinian territories as apartheid, while the Human Rights Watch report argues that Israel’s behavior fits the legal definition of apartheid.

Scholars aren’t sold on the Abraham Accords

We also asked scholars to assess the impact of the Abraham Accords, signed in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — Sudan and Morocco also signed on later. Respondents were highly negative that the accords would boost the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace: Nearly three-quarters, 72 percent, said the impact was negative, and only 6 percent said the accords would have a positive impact.

Overall, 70 percent assessed the accords would have a negative impact on advancing democracy and human rights in the region, while less than 5 percent said the accords would have a positive impact. On regional stability, respondents were marginally more positive, with 41 percent saying the impact was negative and 26 percent saying the accords would advance regional stability. The most positive assessment on the accords related to U.S. interests, with a plurality of 41 percent saying the impact was positive and 34 percent negative.

What’s happening in Tunisia?

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed parliament, suspended the constitution, and declared a state of emergency. Some Tunisians lashed out at Western observers for calling his actions a coup, arguing that it was a popular move to save democracy from political paralysis and the Islamist party Ennahda.

Our survey suggests scholars aren’t convinced: 58 percent said it was a coup, while only 14 percent disagreed. Interestingly, 28 percent said they didn’t know — by far the largest such response to any question in the survey. Political scientists, who are perhaps more familiar with the academic literature on coups, were eight percentage points more likely to call it a coup than were scholars from other disciplines. Overall, 76 percent of the scholars assessed that these actions by the president made democracy in Tunisia less likely a decade from now.

What about Iran — and the nuclear deal?

We also asked about a U.S. return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran from which President Donald Trump withdrew three years ago. The survey revealed 69 percent of respondents believed that a U.S. return to the agreement would make it less likely that Iran gets nuclear weapons in the next 10 years. That’s a significant eight-point drop since February’s survey.

We found that 35 percent said a U.S. return to the deal has become less likely in the intervening seven months, while 39 percent said the likelihood remained the same. Of those who see a nuclear deal as less likely, 46 percent blamed the United States, while 18 percent blamed Iran. This latest survey does not tell us why attitudes changed, but the election of a hard-line Iranian president, the accelerated pace of Iranian uranium enrichment and stalemated negotiations have likely dimmed hopes.

Scholars have become less optimistic

Six months into the Biden administration, scholars of the Middle East offered a more pessimistic assessment of the region. Not only do fewer scholars see hope for a two-state outcome in Israel and the Palestinian territories, but 80 percent now say its absence would likely assure that Israel would become an apartheid-like regime. Scholars also see democracy in Tunisia and a return to the Iran nuclear deal as less likely. And, contrary to the celebratory mood in Washington about the Abraham Accords in 2021, they see the impact as mostly negative for the region.