Qatar Crisis Took U.S. by Surprise. Israel Is Concerned

Qatar Crisis is received with mixed feelings in Israel: Saudi and Egyptian pressure might lead to new Hamas conflict in Gaza, but pro-Palestinian Al Jazeera and ties to Tehran angered Jerusalem

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Shortly after the crisis erupted between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to take credit for the unusual step that Riyadh took in the wake of his visit there last month. On Tuesday morning the president tweeted: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” 

The global news agenda today is handled a little like a family getting used to a new baby, which adapts itself gradually to the infant’s sleeping and eating patterns. When Trump wanders the White House’s West Wing, has a hard time falling asleep and wakes up early in the morning, the world is blasted by his tweets, which more than once have altered reality. In other instances, they create an alternative reality, fake news, the kind the president himself accuses the mainstream media of spreading. It seems the force of the Saudi boycott of Qatar caught the U.S. administration by surprise. Defense Secretary James Mattis, just before the crisis, had even promised to strengthen security relations with Qatar.

The Americans, who maintain a huge air force base in the emirate (from which many sorties take off to attack Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria), have something to lose in this crisis, although many felt Qatar should pay some price for its cynical, long-standing maneuvering between the camps in the Middle East. More than it was some clever, coordinated move between the Saudis and the Americans, it seems Trump planted the seeds of the crisis during his visit in Riyadh, and that Saudi Arabia took it several steps further. Moscow also made its contribution. CNN reported that Russian hackers were the ones who broke into the Twitter account of the official Qatari news agency and inserted declarations that fueled the crisis with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

This is probably not the only fake news spread in recent weeks. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, before he arrived in Israel, included an announcement that the United States had signed a huge deal to sell arms to the Saudis. Trump attributes great importance to the announcement because it was presented as fulfilling his election promise to promote American manufacturing and create tens of thousands of new jobs. However, Bruce Riedel, a former senior official in the CIA and National Security Council, asserted this week in an article published by the Brookings Institute that all the deals mentioned so far “began in the Obama administration.”

“There is no $110 billion deal,” he wrote. “Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts.” They have not finalized which arms the Saudis would receive, and it isn’t clear at all if Riyadh, given the fall in oil prices, will be able to pay the amounts it promised.

The Iranian front

Israel, which used to have ties with Qatar and used the emirate to convey messages to Hamas, views the new crisis with mixed feelings. If the Saudi and Egyptian pressure leads Qatar to stop supporting Hamas, this could worsen the economic distress in Gaza as well as the military tension with Israel. On the other hand, the provocative influence of Al Jazeera broadcasts (whose main studios are in the Qatari capital Doha) on the Palestinian front and the discrete ties Qatar maintained with Iran also angered Israel. Jerusalem still sees Tehran as the main threat to regional piece, against which it needs to unify with both the West and the Sunni Arab kingdoms and emirates, chief among them Saudi Arabia.

It is the line reiterated by senior defense officials, who met in recent weeks with their colleagues in the American intelligence community and in the Trump administration. Israel warns against the Iranian effort, through Shi’ite militias in Iraq, to take control of the Syrian-Iraqi border to create territorial continuity between Tehran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. At the same time, Israel is perturbed by Iran’s broader strategic intentions. Israel describes an Iranian three-way movement to expand its influence in the Middle East and isolate the Saudis. Northward, it moves toward the Syrian-Iraqi border. Southward, it provides massive assistance to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Riyadh is waging a brutal and fairly losing battle. And in the middle, to Israel’s east, it is undermining Bahrain, supporting the Shi’ite majority there to shake off the rule of the Sunni royalty, which is supported by the Saudis.

The Vienna Agreement may have given, in the best-case scenario, a respite of nearly a decade from Iran’s advance of its nuclear program, but Tehran continues striving to strengthen its regional status. Arming the Yemeni rebels with thousands of missiles and rockets, which pose a constant threat to Saudi Arabia, should worry Washington and Riyadh especially. The Israelis remind their American partners how Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal grew in Lebanon with Iranian funding between each Israeli military operation, from Operation Accountability (1993) to Grapes of Wrath (1996) to Israel’s withdrawal from the security zone (2000), to the Second Lebanon War (2006) and until today. Hezbollah has consistently improved its means of attack from a few hundred short-range Katyusha rockets to over 100,000 rockets and missiles, which cover every square inch of Israel in a way that has changed the regional strategic balance. Iran, the Israelis believe, is seeking to do the same thing now in Yemen, against Saudi Arabia.

Hamas, which is worried about losing Qatari support, reestablished ties last year with Iran, which renewed its limited economic support to the military wing in Gaza. The leadership of the Palestinian organization continues to change patrons and supporters, as part of its survival efforts. This month is full of round memorial dates. After the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the 35th anniversary of the first Lebanon war, which were observed this week, next week will mark the 10th anniversary of Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza and expulsion of senior Fatah officials from the Strip. In Gaza, Hamas established the Middle East’s first Sunni Islamic republic (as distinct from the monarchies), seven years before the establishment of ISIS’s terror caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

The scorecard of the past decade in Gaza is far from encouraging. The residents are subject to a brutal regime that practices religious coercion. Neither did the evacuation from the Israeli settlements in 2005 translate into an improvement in their economic wellbeing. The lion’s share of the gigantic sums flowing into Gaza are not used for rehabilitation but rather to improve the Hamas leadership’s twisted vision of a balance of strategic terror against Israel. Gaza has suffered three rounds of fighting during this period, which left behind enormous destruction. Not that the West Bank is flourishing, but life under the Palestinian Authority there – as corrupt and limited as it may be – is immeasurably better than that of the situation of Gazan residents.

However, it is precisely the PA of Mahmoud Abbas that is now tightening the screws on Gaza, through a reduction in payment of salaries to Gazans and electricity supply from Israel. At times, it seems Abbas is trying to drag Hamas into another military confrontation with Israel (a confrontation that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman pledged would be the last of its kind). Meanwhile, though, it looks like the Netanyahu government will take care not to fall into this trap.