A debate over the good name of Qatar has become a burning issue in Washington. The Emirate has been waging an all out charm offensive aimed at convincing Americans not to back Saudi Arabia’s efforts to isolate it.
But while efforts seeking to influence D.C. elites are commonplace, the most prominent targets of Qatar’s public relations push aren’t the usual suspects in Congress or the media.
Instead, Qatar’s PR team has focused on winning the hearts and minds of a very specific niche of opinion leader that is not generally given much attention, let alone love, by Arab states: the pro-Israel community in general and right-wing Jews in particular.
This has not only reaped some benefits for the Qataris but also set off something of a civil war on the right between those who buy the Emirate’s arguments and those who dismiss them as propaganda intended to cover up its support for terrorism.
But as interesting as this nasty intramural quarrel might be, it’s worth pondering if there’s something more to Qatar’s efforts than a generic Washington influence operation. It is, after all, logical for them to seek out those who may have Trump’s ear.
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Yet the disproportionate attention given the Jews may have a more sinister origin that should be familiar to students of Jewish and Zionist history.
The obvious explanation for Qatar’s strategy is the increased importance of pro-Israel opinion in the Trump administration, especially when compared to its predecessor. With supporters of the settlement movement appointed to posts like the U.S. ambassador to Israel and an Orthodox Jews like presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner at Trump’s side, the Jewish right’s stock is at an all-time high.
That elevates the importance of pro-Israel organizations and lobbyists who might otherwise be assumed to be hostile to any Gulf nation, especially one that is host and sponsor of the rabidly anti-Israel Al Jazeera network and is believed to have played a major role in funding Hamas.
That has led to a stream of invitations for pro-Israel figures to visit Qatar and to hear its leaders make the case that it has gotten a bum rap from critics. Some, like the Zionist Organization of America’s Mort Klein, insist they were only there to insist that the emirate cease funding terrorism. Others returned from a tour of Qatar singing its praises or at least, willing to give its assertion that it no longer has ties with Hamas the benefit of the doubt.
One prominent convert to the pro-Qatar side is attorney and author Alan Dershowitz, a longtime liberal Democrat who is also a pillar of the pro-Israel community. Dershowitz was impressed by Qatar’s efforts to put its best face forward to the Jews noting that Israeli athletes were welcomed to compete in Doha while Saudi Arabia - which has established strong under-the-table ties with Israel and is a Trump administration favorite - continued its discriminatory attitude towards Israelis. Dershowitz even went so far as to call Qatar "the Israel of the Gulf States."
That in turn generated some fierce pushback from other pro-Israel figures with scholar Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies pointing out there is proof that Qatar’s alibis about Hamas and terror ring false and urging Dershowitz to stick to topics he knows something about. More extreme was the reaction from the always-incendiary Rabbi Shmuley Boteach who branded Dershowitz a sellout.
Who is right in this dispute?
Until proven otherwise, the skeptics about Qatar have the better arguments. Qatar’s involvement in Gaza can’t be written off as mere philanthropy.
But as even Schanzer pointed out, there’s no harm in Jews going there to learn more about the place. Nor, despite the close ties it is establishing with Israel, is there any reason for pro-Israel figures to get involved in the politics of the Arabian Peninsula, let alone take the side of the Saudis in their feud with Qatar. The Gulf emirate has always had an ambivalent relationship with the West, with Doha being a U.S. Navy base while also serving as a beachhead for Iranian influence. Drawing firm conclusions about its behavior is probably unwarranted.
But there’s another factor here that needs to also be examined.
While their Washington PR representative — a former aide to Senator Ted Cruz - may have told his client that winning over supporters of Israel is the path to success, the attention given the American Jewish community is still disproportionate. Conservative Jewish groups may have loud voices and some influential backers but their ability to influence events, let alone national opinion is limited. That’s why most lobbyists don’t squander that much attention on them.
Another plausible explanation for all this attention stems from the traditional anti-Semitic belief that Jews and Zionists can exert mysterious control over major powers like the United States. Just like the well-meaning British statesmen who really thought the Balfour Declaration would boost the Allied war effort because of the unique and sinister ability of Jews to influence the United States and Russia, others have similarly bought into unfounded notions about Jewish power.
The contemporary Arab and Muslim world has become a place where anti-Semitic texts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion freely circulate. Those who demonize Israel and its supporters are prone to attribute exaggerated powers to Jews in this way. If the Qataris are that focused on American Jews and right-wingers at that, it’s just as likely to be as much the product of this sort of distorted thinking as anything else.
Seen in that light, the dustup on the Jewish right about Qatar is even sillier that it seems. Reports about Qatar dangling the prospect of spiking an Al Jazeera documentary about pro-Israel lobbyists is particularly absurd because few in the U.S. take the network seriously.
Rather than argue about the virtues of the Emirate, supporters of Israel need to wonder about the reasons they are being wooed and conclude they’d be better off staying out of this dispute altogether.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin