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The Pros and Cons of Normalization Between Israel and Qatar

Qatar is often mentioned as a worthy target for Israel’s efforts to normalize relations with the Arab world. But beneath the Qatari honey is a hornets’ nest

Michael Herzog
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Doha, Qatar.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 21, 2020.Credit: Patrick Semansky/AFP
Michael Herzog

Qatar is often mentioned as a worthy target for Israel’s efforts to normalize relations with the Arab world. But we should stop and think when it comes to Doha: Beneath the Qatari honey is a hornets’ nest.

As a small, wealthy country that is neighbor to powerful players that are mutual rivals (Iran and Saudi Arabia), Qatar tries to protect its interests by playing both sides of the field – with the “good guys” (including the United States and Israel) and with the “bad guys.” Qatar hosts the biggest U.S. Air Force base in the Middle East, buys American arms and aids the U.S. in its war with jihadist forces in the area while also hosting a Turkish army base, flirting with Iran and sponsoring the Al Jazeera TV station, which spews anti-American and anti-Israel venom. By cooperating with the “good guys,” Qatar skillfully whitewashes its cooperation with the “bad guys.”

Qatar is important to Israel mainly because it is the only regional player that has been spending large amounts of money to stabilize the Gaza Strip, thus preventing, since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the eruption of a major military conflict. We can’t ignore that, especially since in the foreseeable future, there is no obvious alternative to the Qatari money.

But Qatar’s money cannot provide a sustainable solution for the Gaza Strip, and normalization with Qatar has significant potential costs in a far broader context.

First, we must consider its support for organizations that are hostile to Israel. In a nutshell: For years, Qatar has been the main external source of support for the Hamas movement. There is convincing evidence of its quiet cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah. It was Qatar that financed the expensive battery of international lawyers hired by the Palestinian Authority to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court in The Hague for “war crimes” (including in Gaza, the arena of Qatari-Israeli cooperation).

Qatar also offers warm hospitality to Azmi Bishara, the former Israeli legislator accused by Israel of spying for Hezbollah, and who now advises the Qatari leadership.

In terms of regional ties, Qatari has allied itself in recent years with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with his megalomaniacal aspirations, in establishing an active channel of sponsorship for political Islam and its main representatives, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and in challenging the traditional regional leadership roles of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Qatar is also a support base for extremist Sunni sects that are fighting against important moderating trends.

There is a reason why Qatar is anathema to central players such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They have been boycotting it since 2017 for supporting Islamic terror, encouraging subversion against them and maintaining disturbing relations with Iran. Israeli-Qatari normalization, as long as these players are engaged in an active conflict with Qatar, is likely to harm Israel’s relations with them and the chances of advancing relations with additional countries in the region that are more important than Qatar, first and foremost Saudi Arabia.

Qatar seems to be conditioning normalization on progress toward solving the Palestinian issue and presumably also on receiving consideration from the United States.

In any case, despite the benefits of becoming closer to a pro-Islamist player with means, Israel must not allow whitewashing, even by implication, of the negative Qatari record, by taking this step. Israel must present a list of clear conditions to Qatar, involving the cessation of its hostile activity and, in consultation with the new administration in Washington, should make American benefits to Qatar (which in any case must not include F-35 fighter planes) contingent on fulfilling these conditions. If not, it would be preferable to leave the relations in their present limited format, without the benefits and the disadvantages of normalization.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Jewish People Policy Institute.

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