Qatar is a hornets’ nest, Michael Herzog wrote in Haaretz on November 23. It has supported and even hosted extremists hostile to Israel and therefore Israel must not normalize relations with it, he argues, because that would whitewash the Qataris’ dubious record.
Herzog’s description is accurate for the most part, but it ignores a number of bilateral and geostrategic advantages that might be attainable upon normalization of ties.
Over the long term, ties with Qatar would not necessarily be at the expense of Israeli relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, whose relationship with Qatar is in crisis. If anything both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have an interest in bringing Qatar back into the fold after their boycott of it pushed it into the embrace of Iran and Turkey.
The Saudis, who have been negotiating with the Qataris to end the boycott, might even offer U.S. President-elect Joe Biden a “gift” in the form of normalized Saudi relations with Qatar in the hopes of scoring points with the Americans and at least somewhat improving the negative Saudi image in Washington.
That was my impression when I visited the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, this month, where I was told that a resolution between Qatar and its neighbors was possible, and in the near future.
Normalizing relations with Qatar, the richest country in the world by the criterion of GDP per capita, could be to Israel’s benefit, and not only from an economic standpoint. Unlike Saudi Arabia or the UAE, Qatar exerts major influence on what happens in the Palestinian arena, including the West Bank. That’s influence that Israel could make better use of.
Herzog acknowledges that Qatar is the only country investing substantial sums in the Gaza Strip, which significantly helps calm matters there. Israeli normalization with Qatar could boost its investments there, not only for the benefit of the residents but for Israel’s as well. The UAE and Saudi Arabia not only lack the capacity to influence the Palestinian arena. They also appear to lack the will to invest substantial resources at present.
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Involvement in the Palestinian arena is an important tool for the Qataris in consolidating their regional standing. Qatar sees that standing as an insurance policy for its very existence in the region – and in the process, it is perceived as an essential and central player by the other players in the area. Even more importantly, it enables the Qataris to maintain its essential relationship with the United States.
On the one hand Qatar’s efforts to strengthen its regional standing exacerbate tensions and the strategic competition with its neighbors, but on the other hand, its capacity to work with all these players also constitutes an asset for the United States and Israel, which have benefited from critical mediation by Qatar with groups such as Hamas and the Taliban.
Israel provides Qatar with valuable influence in the Palestinian arena, which gives it considerable leverage with the Qataris.
Qatar badly wants the boycott to end and to return to the fold among the Gulf countries. Israel can play a mediating role between Qatar and its neighbors, who in turn want to limit Turkish influence in the region. Reconciliation between the Gulf states could also hurt Iran, drive a wedge between Doha, the Qatari capital, and Ankara, and scuttle the “Muslim Brotherhood axis.”
Israel needs to demand conditions in return for normalization of ties with Doha. It must not agree to the sale of fighter planes to Qatar. But at the same time, in coordination with Washington and the UAE, Israel can help the Qataris return to the Gulf fold.
Qatar’s history has proven that in most instances, the pragmatic side of its foreign policy has taken precedence over the ideological side. It has close ties with Israel that go well beyond coordinating the flow of funds into Gaza.
The Qatari connection is a necessary evil. Qatar is the “bad boy” of the Middle East and will continue to be so. But it is actually for that very reason that Israel has an interest in closer relations with Doha.
Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.