Jerusalem Clashes: The Arab World Stays Mum, Except for One Powerful Billionaire

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2006.
Former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2006. Credit: REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Arab leaders, save Jerusalem! This is the heart of the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic problem. The issue does not require a summit meeting or condemnations, as we’ve been accustomed to and sufficed with, but requires action to stop the Israeli breaches that are supported by your silence. Peace, not to mention war, demands the display of fangs in unsmiling faces, until victory or peace is achieved.” Thus tweeted former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani last Friday.

While Sheikh Hamad has no official position in the government of Qatar, his fingerprints are everywhere. He wields great political and economic influence; he sits on the boards of large Qatari companies, including the national airline; he advises the Brookings Institution; and he owns the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team, Harrods, and other huge companies that make him one of the world’s richest men. When he tweets, people listen to him – in Washington and in the capitals of Europe and the Arab states.

A week ago Hamad “suggested” to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he retire, “Given the circumstances and his current stage in life.” The “circumstances” are Abbas’ decision to postpone the Palestinian elections that were to be held this month; his “stage of life” is his advanced age.

Abbas' Fatah movement responded angrily: “Every bit of advice that comes to us via the media is a subversive explosive package, behind which objectives lurk. Our people are under occupation and despite that held an election and established an elected leadership. But with our fellow people [that is, Qatar], there are no elections and never have been. Its leader sits on a seat upon which he forced himself,” wrote Munib al-Jarov, head of the media bureau in Fatah’s recruitment and organization office.

Qatar is not a good friend of the PA or of Abbas. It is the supporting pillar of Hamas, along with Turkey, a close Qatari ally. Both countries are partners in a few other “projects” in the Middle East, like the cooperative effort in Libya against Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and support for radical Islamic militias in Syria and their hostile relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But unlike Turkey, Qatar has close ties and is involved in military cooperation with the U.S. administration, while Turkey is now like the pupil waiting in the hallway for his punishment from U.S. President Joe Biden. Turkey and Qatar had both started to prepare for the Palestinian elections, which were marked as another joint goal. From their perspective, a Hamas victory in the vote wouldn’t just repay them for the years of investment they’d made in the Islamist movement – it would also be a ringing slap in the face of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, of course, Israel.

Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Jassim Al-Thani, in February. Despite Hamas' requests, Qatar has not tried to pressure President Mahmoud Abbas to reschedule PA elections.Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

Officially, relations between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were back on track following the reconciliation accord signed in January. Two weeks ago, King Salman of Saudi Arabia invited Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to visit the kingdom. There have already been reciprocal visits by the countries’ foreign ministers, and relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also starting to show signs of life.

But with regard to the Palestinian issue, the story is different and more complex. Qatar, with Israeli and Egyptian agreement, continues to transfer tens of millions of dollars to Hamas to cover its ongoing operations and pay salaries to its employees; in February, Qatar’s ruler announced it had allocated another $360 million to the Gaza Strip, for 2021. Hamas consults with Qatar on all its political decisions, and even invited it to help oversee the PA elections.

After Abbas announced he was postponing the elections because of Israel’s refusal to allow voting in East Jerusalem, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, travelled to Doha to ask the Qatari ruler to pressure Abbas to change his mind. To date, however, Qatar hasn’t made any moves to that end because it understands that this time, unlike in the 2006 elections, Abbas is as afraid of opposition to him in Fatah as he is of a Hamas victory.

But since the postponement serious clashes have erupted in Jerusalem, which have made clear that not only is Israel not in control of events, but Abbas is also losing his ability to steer them. If during previous confrontations at the holy places, Abbas was able to summon the Arab states to at least pressure Israel or the United States – he now knows that this card almost doesn’t exist.

The lukewarm reactions and the weak condemnations of Israeli actions in Jerusalem that were heard from those countries who have signed peace treaties with Israel indicate that other than Jordan, which is afraid to lose its status on the Temple Mount to Saudi Arabia, the other countries will merely tut-tut.

Egypt thinks it’s doing enough in mediating between Israel and Hamas; it has absented itself from the Temple Mount arena. Saudi Arabia is observing from the side and sees, with a certain degree of satisfaction, how Jordan isn’t managing to intimidate Israel. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita was a guest at an AIPAC event last week, speaking via video link about his country's tightening relations with Israel and of his hope to broaden normalization with the Jewish state. And the UAE’s ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Al Khaja, wrote a piece last week in Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he praised Israelis for making him feel at home.

It looks as if Jerusalem Temple Mount is going the way of Mount Meron. The Temple Mount may be a holy place, but it's the kind that can’t be allowed to undermine regional political arrangements.

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