WASHINGTON – When Qatar's public relations efforts to change its reputation within the U.S. Jewish community were first published in September, one of the first Jewish-American leaders to attack the rich Emirate was Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America. Klein, like many other Jewish leaders, was offered an opportunity to meet with the Emir of Qatar during the UN General Assembly. He refused the invitation, and put out a press release explaining why:
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"ZOA has decided that, at this point, we can’t allow the imprimatur of ZOA to be involved with the potential of legitimizing in any way Qatar’s disgraceful activities. ZOA would be interested in meeting with them if they first take explicit steps to change their monstrous behavior."
Earlier in January, however, Klein had visited Qatar at the invitation of the Emir, and had a private meeting with him in Doha, the Emirate's capital city. The visit, which had not previously been reported, took place at the same time that other prominent public figures who are known as supporters of the Israeli government, such as Alan Dershowitz and Mike Huckabee, visited Doha. Their visits attracted strong criticism from other supporters of Israel, who warned that the Qataris were using "pro-Israel" names to whitewash their support for Hamas and other terror organizations.
Haaretz independently confirmed through three different sources that Klein visited Qatar. When reached for comment on Monday, Klein explained what caused him to change his mind and visit the Emirate. "They invited me to go a number of times – in September, October, November and December," he said. "At first I refused, because of their support for Hamas and the anti-Semitism being broadcast on Al Jazeera. But over time, I saw that more and more Jewish leaders were going there, and I realized that at this point, they won't be able to use me for propaganda, because everyone is already going, but I might use the visit to push them on these issues."
Klein's explanation shows the extent to which Qatar has succeeded, in just a few months, to make inroads into the right-wing segments of the U.S. Jewish community. The list of Jewish leaders who have visited the country in recent months includes Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations; Jack Rosen of the American Jewish Congress (Rosen told Haaretz that "I have been fortunate enough to have a good relationship over the years with the Qataris, and so I am not part of this particular group going in recent months."); Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union; Martin Oliner of the Religious Zionists of America; and the latest, Dershowitz – who is active on many fronts as a vocal supporter of Israel – and Klein.
What these leaders share is that none of them are considered critics of the right-wing Netanyahu government in Israel or the Trump administration in Washington.
Dershowitz identifies himself as a Democrat, but over the past year he has published articles and offered commentary in favor of both Trump and Netanyahu – not just on policy issues, but also regarding their legal troubles and corruption investigations. All the other names come from organizations that support Israeli settlements and have reacted positively to Trump's policy toward Israel.
Klein told Haaretz that the Qatari choice to engage with "right-of-center Zionists" was noticeable. "They didn't invite people from J Street, Americans for Peace Now or the Reform Movement," he said. "I think it's interesting." Klein said another factor in his decision to go to Qatar was the fact that U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin praised Qatar publicly for signing a memorandum with the United States against terror funding.
Like most of the other Jewish leaders invited to Qatar, Klein's trip was paid for by the Emirate ("I didn't take anything else from them," he emphasized). During his visit, he met with a number of senior officials in the country, including the Emir. "They knew that I'm a very tough critic of them," he said. Just this past June, ZOA called on the Trump administration to cancel the license of Qatar Airways to fly into the United States because of Qatar's support for terrorism.
"I came there with a 50 page report written by our research department, with all the problems related to Qatar," Klein said. "From their ties to Hamas to the anti-Semitic contents on Al Jazeera, and the anti-Semitic books in the Doha International Book Fair. I brought this with me to the meeting with the Emir. We sat for close to two hours and I shared everything with him. I told the Qataris that it's good to have verbal assurances of change, but that it will require many months of actions from them, to convince me that something has truly changed. They denied supporting Hamas and said their work in Gaza was being coordinated with Israel."
Klein said that he "decided it was important for me to speak truth to power, especially when the Emir repeatedly invited me to give them my views on what they needed to do." He added that "our organization's mission is to help Israel and the Jewish people. There is a long history of Jewish leaders going to speak to bad actors on behalf of our people." Among the examples, he mentioned that "Yitzhak Shamir met the Palestinians in Madrid. [Menachem] Begin met with Anwar Sadat." Klein also emphasized that "this is the head of a country, not the head of Hamas." According to him, the visit was an important opportunity "to tell them what they need to do better."
On the Palestinian issue, Klein said, "I told the Emir why his speech on Jerusalem before the UN was wrong. I said that Jerusalem has been a Jewish city for thousands of years. I also said that the Arab Peace Initiative, which they support, would be a total disaster. He said that on this issue, we'll have to respectfully disagree. The Qataris pointed out that many Israelis, such as Shimon Peres, supported this initiative."
Other Jewish leaders who have traveled to Qatar, such as Hoenlein and Dershowitz, offered somewhat similar explanations for their decision to visit the Emirate. Hoenlein claimed he was trying to assist with returning the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas; Dershowitz said he want to "investigate" whether Qatar had truly changed its stance on Hamas and other issues.
Rosen, who told Haaretz his visit to Qatar was separate from the wave of other Jewish leaders' visits, noted that "I can’t speak to their objectives or motives but I believe that positive results in these matters are better obtained by using discretion.”
The visits by Jewish leaders to Qatar have been met with strong criticism from within the Jewish community. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox leader from New Jersey who made headlines in recent years for his harsh attacks on the Obama administration, published a number of articles criticizing the Jewish leaders who have gone to Qatar. One of them, published in November in Breitbart, carried the headline "Jewish Community for Sale to Qatar?"
Boteach wrote in it that "It has been dispiriting to watch how some in our community are seemingly up for sale. There has been no demand that before embracing Qatar they first stop funding Hamas terrorists. And those Jewish individuals hired by Qatar and accepting Qatari money are no doubt aware that their embrace will lessen the pressure on Qatar, which is currently experiencing a severe boycott because of its terror-funding activities."
Yigal Carmon of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a pro-Israel organization that monitors Arab media outlets, published an article recently under the headline "Qatar – the Emirate That Fools Them All – and Its Enablers", in which he warned that "It is sad to see American Jewish leaders bolstering anti-Semitic stereotypes by ignorantly intervening in internal conflicts that do not concern them, complex inter-Arab conflicts which are difficult to assess even as observers."
Carmon specifically criticized Dershowitz for comparing Qatar's regional isolation in the Gulf to that of Israel in the broader Middle East. He called Dershowitz "one of the enablers of Qatar", before listing the Emirate's support for Hamas and other terror organizations.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Haaretz two weeks ago that "there is nothing wrong with analysts and intellectuals traveling to Qatar to learn about the situation there. The problem is that during those visits, they’re not hearing the other side of the story. They are getting the government line and then they go home. They need to hear also from Qatar’s critics. There is a lot of material they should become aware of about Qatar’s ties to Hamas, Al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood and other problematic actors.”
Coincidentally, the argument within the Jewish community on Qatar is happening at the same time that the Trump administration is getting closer to the Emirate. This week, a senior Qatari delegation is visiting Washington. Two weeks ago, Trump had a phone call with the Emir, in which he thanked him for Qatar's "action to counter terrorism and extremism in all forms, including being one of the few countries to move forward on a bilateral memorandum of understanding.”