WASHINGTON – Israel's Embassy to the United States does not support Qatar's campaign to improve its image in the American Jewish and pro-Israel community, an embassy spokesman told Haaretz Tuesday. "We oppose this outreach effort in the Jewish and pro-Israel community," said embassy spokesman Itai Bar Dov following a number of recent reports about trips by American Jewish leaders to Doha, the capital of the wealthy Gulf state..
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In mid-2017, Qatar began using the services of Nick Muzin, a Jewish-American government and public affairs consultant who had previously worked for Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Muzin has arranged meetings between Qatar's senior leadership, including the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and leading figures in the Jewish community. The Qatari outreach effort has been particularly successful among right-wing parts of the community and has also included non-Jewish, right-wing supporters of Israel, such as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
A number of those who had either visited Qatar or met with its leaders in the U.S. claimed they had received blessing for their actions from Israeli officials. The embassy response to a question on this subject from Haaretz, made it clear that Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer had not expressed support for those meetings and visits. "Anyone claiming that these trips received the ambassador's blessing is not saying the truth," the embassy spokesman said.
Over the past several years, Israel has accused Qatar of supporting Hamas and hosting the organization's senior leadership. Since last year, Qatar has been isolated by a partial blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, who accuse it of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, inciting violence and unrest throughout the Arab world and cooperating with Iran.
Qatari officials deny all these allegations, and have used the meetings arranged by Muzin to present their counterarguments. One point they have used to push back against criticism is that Qatar is currently working together with Israel on rehabilitating the Gaza Strip, following the damages of the 2014 Gaza war. During that war, Israel's relationship with Qatar reached a new low, as Israeli officials frequently attacked the Emirate for supporting Hamas. Over the last two years, however, there has indeed been some coordination between the two countries on rebuilding Gaza and seeking ways to improve the Palestinian economy. One Israeli official even said that Qatar was one of the "only countries" to actively work on this issue.
Since last summer, at least five leaders of Jewish-American organizations have visited Qatar and met with its leaders. On Monday, Haaretz revealed that Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, visited Qatar in early January. Klein spent five days in the Emirate and met with the Emir and with other senior officials, despite the fact that just last year, he had publicly denounced Qatar for supporting terrorism and called on the Trump administration to ban its official airline, Qatar Airways, from operating in the U.S.
Klein explained to Haaretz that he used the visit to press Qatar's leadership about its ties to Hamas and about anti-Semitic incitement on state-owned news network Al Jazeera. Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, has also visited Qatar recently, and has stated that the purpose of his visit was to assist in retrieving the bodies of two slain Israeli soldiers currently believed to be held by Hamas in Gaza.
A senior Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, told Haaretz that "we have our own channels for this issue. These visits are not related to us. They are about Washington."
The Trump administration, it should be noted, is also improving its ties with Qatar. Last year, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin visited Qatar and praised the country for its commitment to fighting terrorism. Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump had a phone call with the country's Emir; this week, a senior Qatari delegation is visiting Washington. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said publicly Tuesday that Qatar has made "significant progress to improve efforts to combat terrorism,” while Defense Secretary James Mattis described the country as "a strong partner of the United States."
The visits by Jewish leaders to Qatar have been met with strong criticism from within the Jewish community. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox leader from New Jersey who made headlines in recent years for his harsh attacks on the Obama administration, published a number of articles criticizing the Jewish leaders who have gone to Qatar. One of them, published in November in Breitbart News, carried the headline "Jewish Community for Sale to Qatar?"
Boteach wrote that "it has been dispiriting to watch how some in our community are seemingly up for sale. There has been no demand that before embracing Qatar they first stop funding Hamas terrorists. And those Jewish individuals hired by Qatar and accepting Qatari money are no doubt aware that their embrace will lessen the pressure on Qatar, which is currently experiencing a severe boycott because of its terror-funding activities."
Yigal Carmon of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a pro-Israel organization that monitors Arab media outlets, published an article recently under the headline "Qatar – the Emirate That Fools Them All – and Its Enablers," in which he warned that "It is sad to see American Jewish leaders bolstering anti-Semitic stereotypes by ignorantly intervening in internal conflicts that do not concern them, complex inter-Arab conflicts which are difficult to assess even as observers."
Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Haaretz two weeks ago that "there is nothing wrong with analysts and intellectuals traveling to Qatar to learn about the situation there. The problem is that during those visits, they’re not hearing the other side of the story. They are getting the government line and then they go home. They need to hear also from Qatar’s critics. There is a lot of material they should become aware of about Qatar’s ties to Hamas, Al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood and other problematic actors.”