Analysis

The Qatar Dilemma: When Even a Supporter of Terrorism Can Be an Israeli Ally

It turns out that when there is political and military need, amazing elasticity can be applied to principles cast in concrete

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha, Qatar, August 9, 2018.
Reuters

“Arab countries that broke off relations with Qatar did not do so because of Israel or the Palestinian question, but because of their fear of radical Islamist terrorism,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in explaining the embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on Qatar in June of last year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also warned that Qatar supports terrorism, and four years ago, Shimon Peres, the late Israeli president, said that the Qataris support terrorism.

But Qatar, an ally of Turkey and Iran, is in the process of being rehabilitated after Israel and Egypt agreed that it would bear the burden of paying the salaries of tens of thousands of government employees in Gaza. And Qatar is also mediating a deal for the return of two Israeli civilians being held in Gaza as well as the bodies of two soldiers killed in the Strip in 2014. Israel is keeping officially mum regarding an agreement taking shape with Hamas over Gaza, denying the very existence of negotiations with the Islamist movement, and no one is asking why Israel is agreeing to Qatar being partner to this. It turns out that rising diplomatic and military needs can result in amazing flexibility even when it comes to principles that are cast in concrete.

But the issue of Qatar is more complicated than just its willingness to finance the first stage of an agreement with Hamas. Qatar became Egypt's enemy after the rise to power of the current Egyptian president, Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi. That was the result of Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the scathing criticism broadcast on Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera television following Sissi’s military coup. To this day Qatar does not recognize his legitimacy, and when the Saudis and the Emiratis imposed their embargo, Egypt was quick to join in, imposing an aerial embargo on Qatar despite the fact that 300,000 Egyptians work there.

Saudi Arabia views Qatar as an Iranian emissary in the Arab Middle East, and the Saudis also speak of “Qatar’s interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries," reflecting the aid that Qatar provides Hamas and radical Sunni militias in Syria. When it comes to the United Arab Emirates, Iranian companies are allowed to do business there, yet the U.A.E. has joined the boycott of Qatar as a result of the Qataris' close ties with Iran.

>> How Qatar is warming ties with both Trump and Iran – at the same time | Explained  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatar's Al-Thani in Ankara, this week.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

After the embargo was imposed on Qatar, Turkey and Iran became the main suppliers of goods to Qatar, allowing it to bypass the aerial blockade. And when U.S. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the nuclear accord with Iran, Qatar said it would not allow foreign forces to attack Iran from its territory and that it would not join any sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States.

The rift in relations between Qatar and the Gulf states and Egypt led officials in Jerusalem to believe that Israel had become a member, albeit not an active or official one, in the Arab coalition against Iran.

The anti-Iranian common front comprised of the Gulf states, Israel and the United States came on top of hostility between Saudi Arabia and Hamas. The situation led Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman to attempt to oust Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, and surfaced against the backdrop of intervention by Iran and Hezbollah in the war against Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen. The situation gave Israel the sense that leading Gulf states were on the verge of signing a peace treaty with it. Indeed, on paper, Middle Eastern coalitions are divided into pro-Western states, including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain and Egypt, and pro-Iranian countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, Turkey and Oman, which represents itself as neutral.

But in the face of this mix, the United States finds itself in a quandary. On one hand, it is an important ally of Saudi Arabia, spearheading the global anti-Iranian campaign alongside Israel. On the other hand, the most important American military base in the Middle East is in Qatar. Trump first tried to reconcile Qatar and its rivals, but as in other conflicts, his efforts failed. Qatar launched a campaign to bolster its global standing, mainly in the United States itself. Qatari leaders met not only with senior Trump administration officials but also with leading Jewish leaders. Qatar understands that it must strengthen its ties with the Jewish community and Israel if it is to maintain the strength of its ties with Washington.

President Trump in Saudi Arabia in May.
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Israel’s commitment to coordinate policies with Egypt and to cooperate with the Egyptian military posed another dilemma for Israel. Qatar, as Israel defines it, supports terrorism but could also help bring about the return of the Israelis and the bodies of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. Qatar is Saudi Arabia’s rival but it is also an American protégé.

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Moreover, negotiations with Hamas over a cease-fire and a longer-term agreement over the situation in Gaza require finding a source that will pay government salaries in Gaza after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to have them paid out of the Palestinian Authority’s coffers. The “natural” sources could be Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. Six months ago, the United Arab Emirates announced that it would budget $15 million a month to resume the payment of the salaries, adding that it would also fund a new power station in Gaza. But the offer was conditioned on the establishment of a governing council made up of civilians, along with Hamas representatives, and headed by Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of preventative security in Gaza. Egypt agreed to the proposal but Hamas rejected it and the funds never arrived.

Two weeks ago, when the source of the funding seemed to be shifting to Qatar, the Saudis and the U.A.E. demanded that Qatar not be allowed a foothold in Gaza, although they offered no alternatives. It was clear to Israel that in the absence of financing, the cease-fire would not hold, which is why it was forced into an agreement with Egypt providing that Qatar would fund ongoing expenses, which were defined as “aid to civilians in Gaza”, not to Hamas.

No one in the Palestinian Authority is buying that distinction, and Qatar has become the target of harsh criticism recently for betraying the Palestinian cause by promoting Trump’s Middle East “deal of the century” through an Gaza diplomatic channel. It’s doubtful that aid to Hamas will lead to diplomatic progress, but it could restore the calm required for sustaining a cease-fire. The means and scope of the oversight for the transfer of funds is not clear, but these issues have become marginal in light of Israel's and Egypt’s desire to restore calm on the Gaza border and, down the line, to separate Gaza from the West Bank.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once called such contortions, born out of interest-driven necessity, heroic flexibility.