Analysis |

Israel-Gaza Fighting Reunited Egypt and Qatar

The end of the fierce conflict between the two Arab countries is an opportunity for Israel in bringing back the missing and captives and the rebuilding of Gaza

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Qatar's Deputy PM and FM Sheikh Al-Thani meets with Egyptian FM Sameh Shoukry, May 2021.
Qatar's Deputy PM and FM Sheikh Al-Thani meets with Egyptian FM Sameh Shoukry, May 2021.Credit: Nariman El-Mofty,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Egypt is among the largest of the countries in the region and it has a leadership role to play in regional issues. (Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah) al-Sissi represents the elected legitimacy in Egypt,” said Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, summing up his precedent-setting visit to Cairo last week.

The “elected legitimacy” is a key term in the relations between the two countries. It expresses the official recognition, albeit very late, of al-Sissi’s status as the elected president. This recognition ends the break in relations and the boycott Egypt imposed on Qatar as part of the siege imposed on it by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2017.

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Qatar was Turkey’s partner among the countries that rejected al-Sissi’s legitimacy after he used force in July 2013 to take control of the presidential palace and oust the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, who was voted in by a large number of Egyptians. The two countries called al-Sissi a dictator, an illegal ruler and a general who brought Egypt back into its darker periods.

The mutual break between Egypt and Qatar and Turkey created a sort of secondary alliance in which Qatar and Turkey conducted an independent regional policy that clashed with the policy led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. Both tightened their relations with Iran, which served as the channel for the oxygen that kept the Qatari economy, suffocating under the siege, going. Both cooperated, militarily and economically, with the recognized government of Libya that fought against the separatist general Khalifa Haftar, and both supported – and still support – Hamas.

It seems that the rivalry and hostility that developed between these two axes were stuck in a dead end without any chance of a solution. Until January of this year, with the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, all these adversaries realized that they were facing a new reality, and that month a summit of Gulf countries was held in Saudi Arabia. There the end of the conflict was declared – leaders who just a minute earlier insulted and cursed one another shared hugs and kisses – plans for cooperation were made and agreements were signed, which testified that at least for the foreseeable future, brotherhood would return to the relations between the countries.

Palestinians sit inside a makeshift tent in Gaza, June 2021.Credit: Felipe Dana,AP

Turkey may have been left on the sidelines when Saudi Arabia imposed an unofficial boycott and Egypt created an anti-Turkish forum of nations in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin against Turkey’s aspirations to invade the oil and natural gas fields that Greece and Cyrus claim are theirs. The relations between Egypt and Qatar also suffered from a severe feebleness that they were in no rush to cure, mostly because of the sponsorship Qatar provides the Muslim Brotherhood, against which Egypt is conducting a war of extermination.

But even the remnants of these disputes are finding channels for a solution. Turkey has changed direction and for weeks has been looking to renew its diplomatic relations with Egypt, and Egypt has not been rejecting them so firmly. The negotiating teams have already held sessions and it seems that in the next few weeks ambassadors will be appointed in Cairo and Ankara.

As for Qatar, the situation is a bit more sensitive. Some 300,000 Egyptians work in Qatar and in the past Qatar invested billions in projects in Egypt. The fear was that the Egyptian boycott would lead to the expulsion of the Egyptian workers, which would cause unemployment in Egypt to climb to record levels, along with the loss of the billions these workers transfer every year to their families back at home. None of that happened. At the foundation of this relationship was the recognition that even a long and harsh boycott will end someday, and it is better – not only for Egypt, but also for Qatar – not to cut off this informal relationship between them.

Add to all this the thin and important thread that kept up the relations between them. It connects Cairo, Doha, Jerusalem and Gaza – which have agreed that Qatar would fund part of the ongoing administrative expenses of Hamas, and provide aid to needy families in the Gaza Strip. Some $360 million a year was transferred from Qatar to Gaza, with the agreement – and even the encouragement – of Israel as part of the understandings reached after the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, and as a result of the skirmishes there in 2018.

Egypt, which saved itself from the need to use its own money to aid Gaza, swallowed its pride to stabilize the quiet in Gaza, which it engineered, and made itself the guarantor that it would be kept. For Qatar, this finding serves as a window through which it can preserve its foothold in the Gaza Strip, and Palestine in general, and at the same time it does not erode Egypt’s position as the landlord who is responsible for the calm and Hamas’ good behavior.

Abbas Kamel and Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem, Sunday.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Israel, for which the quiet in Gaza is a military and diplomatic asset, is paying a relatively cheap price. It does not owe Qatar anything, maintaining Gaza does not fall on its budget, the quiet does not require it to make any diplomatic concessions and it also serves the stable relations with Egypt. This is a system of the principle of communicating vessels and equal pressures, built on internal contradictions and white lies.

Israel does not recognize Hamas and defines it as a terrorist organization, but it also conducts indirect negotiations with it that reinforce its status. Qatar is considered an ally of Iran, but it is a kosher country as long as it serves Israel’s interests. This is also the basis of the relationship between Qatar and Egypt, which, behind the declared hostility and the break in relations, was based on a mutual agreement on the best way to deal with Gaza.

The latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas has also begun to add its contribution to strengthening the new relationship that is developing between Qatar and Egypt. It seems that after “deducting” the civilians who were killed or injured, the houses and institutions destroyed and the businesses shattered, the latest operation is beginning to look like a gift that never stops giving.

Egypt has committed to budget of $500 million to rebuild Gaza. This will not be a direct bank transfer to Hamas’ account, but funding for construction materials, payments to Egyptian contractors and workers who will be employed in construction work, investments in infrastructure such as increasing the electricity supply provided from Egypt, and repairing the water system.

Close to the Egyptian announcement of its commitment, the Qatari contribution was also announced – which is expected to be $500 million too, in addition to the $360 million it provides for the ongoing payments. Israel is attempting to require that this money go via the Palestinian Authority, but after the renewal of relations between Qatar and Egypt, Qatar may very well bypass Israel and transfer the money via Egypt to finance some of the materials that will come from there – so the PA (and Israel) will not have a way to oversee or dictate how the money will be used.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar with Hamas members in Gaza after the cease-fire with Israel, last month. Credit: John Minchillo / AP

The United States has decided to provide its aid through UNRWA, to the tune of $38 million. The European Union plans on donating $9.8 million, $4.5 million will come from the United Kingdom and China will give $1 million. These are not huge amounts. Together they make up only about 25 percent of the sums promised by the donor nations after the 2014 Gaza war.

The Egyptians and Qatar have another matter that has led to closer cooperation between the two. They both are acting to convince Israel and Hamas to reach a solution on the return of the Israeli citizens and the bodies the Israeli soldiers held captive by Hamas in the Strip. Israel is still firmly insisting on its position of tying the reconstruction of Gaza to the return of the captives and the soldiers’ bodies. This link has been totally rejected by Hamas, but at the beginning of the week an urgent meeting is scheduled to take place in Cairo between representatives of the Palestinian factions and the heads of Egyptian intelligence with the goal of reaching a compromise. Qatar will be missing, but its presence will be felt.

Leaks from Egypt and Hamas say that Israel has agreed to release prisoners serving life sentences and others who were sentenced to 20 years in prison, in addition to those who served long periods in solitary confinement, although it is hard to estimate their reliability. Yahya Sinwar quoted the number 1,111 – without giving an explanation – but the clear hint is that it’s the number of prisoners his organization is demanding to be released.

The question is not whether Egypt will find the perfect path between the Israeli position and Hamas’ demands – but with whom the sides will conduct their negotiations. The swearing in of a new government in Israel, if it really does happen, will place Naftali Bennett in the first difficult dilemma of his term. Bennett and al-Sissi have spent no time talking to each other, and have no silent understandings or agreements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitments that were agreed upon between him and Abbas Kamal, the head of Egyptian intelligence, will not necessarily obligate Bennett. He can win over everyone by bringing home the captive civilians and the bodies of the soldiers – but in doing so, he will contradict his declaration from January 2019, in which he said, “before I arrived they released thousands of terrorists here, including Likud governments – and I said enough, and since then not a single terrorist has been freed.”

Naftali Bennett, in April.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This may not have been a very precise statement, because in July 2013, when Bennett was finance minister, the cabinet approved the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, in spite of Bennett’s objections, and he even wanted to legislate a ban on freeing prisoners in a prisoner exchange – but he may very well see things differently from the heights of the premiership.

The truth is that Bennett has already seen things differently. In June 2015, exactly six years ago, when he was serving as education minister, he said in an interview: “The time has come for a change in policy concerning Gaza. We need to initiate an international action of rehabilitating the Gaza Strip on a civil level, in return for an end to the (military development).”

Bennett added at the time that until a decision is made about a comprehensive conquest of the Gaza Strip and the replacement of Hamas rule, Israel must find more practical alternatives. “We have a great interest in the civilian reconstruction of Gaza. There are creative solutions how to condition this rebuilding on the end of the tunneling activities, the end of the (military development),” he said. As to the question of whether, in this position, he is overtaking Likud from the left, he said: “I have come with something called common sense, I look at the situation the way it is. If the time comes when we decided to bring down Hamas – we can do it and it is possible the time will come. But as long as that is not the situation, we need to initiate.”

If Bennett arrives in Egypt bearing this viewpoint, he could very well find himself a new friend in the presidential palace in Cairo, and even return home from there with another Arab country, Qatar, that wants to normalize relations with Israel.

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