Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

What’s happening in the Qatar Crisis - and what is Israel’s perspective?

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Shmuel Levin

 

In early June, four Arab states cut ties with Qatar, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

On 22 June, the four countries presented Qatar with a list of 13 wide-ranging demands. Among other things, this included the curbing of Qatar's diplomatic ties with Iran, the severing of all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah, and the shutting down of Al Jazeera and other Qatari-funded media outlets. The final demand on the list gave Qatar 10 days to comply with the demands, after which the list would become invalid.

On its part, the US Administration sent out a mixed set of messages. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the US expectation was that "these countries will immediately take steps to deescalate the situation" and called for the immediate easing of the blockade on Qatar. Notably, Tillerson had previously developed a close relationship with Qatar's Emir as CEO of Exxon.

However, Tillerson's comments were followed closely by statements from US President Donald Trump implying his support for the blockade and calling on Qatar to cease funding terrorism. Trump tweeted:

So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding...
...extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!

Qatar has traditionally been a strong US ally, and the US maintains its "biggest concentration of military personnel in the Middle East at Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base", with approximately 11,000 US military personnel. However, the US is also a strong ally of Saudi Arabia, as was just recently reaffirmed during Trump's May visit to Riyadh.

After the time limit for compliance with the 13 demands expired, and following intense diplomatic efforts by Tillerson, the four nations said they no longer sought compliance with the 13 demands, and instead wanted Qatar to accept six ‘broad principles'. Notably, this new list did not include a demand that Al Jazeera be closed down.

But, by 30 July, the 13 demands were reinstated as mediation attempts by Tillerson and Kuwait reached an impasse.

Israel and the Qatar crisis

Where does Israel fit into all of this?

On 6 June, Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated: "The Arab states who broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar didn't do so because of Israel, nor did they do so because of the Palestinian issue. They did it because of their own concerns about radical Islamic terror." However, notwithstanding these comments, the recent events concern Israel on a number of accounts.

Since the election of US President Trump, the US has moved away from the Obama Administration's pivot to Iran in favour of Saudi Arabia and likeminded Gulf states. This was consolidated during President Trump's May visit to Saudi Arabia in his first foreign trip as President. However, Saudi Arabia sees Qatar "as a spoiler of efforts to forge a unified Arab-Muslim position, undergirded by the Trump administration, against Iran". As such, just one week before Trump's visit, Saudi media reported a secret meeting between Qatar's Foreign Minister and the Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasim Sulaimani.

In recent years, Israel and Saudi Arabia have shared a common interest in opposing Iranian hegemony and Iran's nuclear ambitions. In turn, this has resulted in the thawing of relations between the two countries. For Israel, the new crisis provides a fresh opportunity for "those states that oppose Qatar to see Israel as a partner" against Iran.

Hamas and the Qatar crisis

In addition, the crisis also provides Israel with an opportunity to partner with these states against Hamas.

Per the 13 demands, Qatar must cut funding to the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah. However, pressure is also being placed on Qatar to cease its support for Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas' headquarters have been located in Doha since the start of the Syrian civil war. Previously, Hamas was headquartered in Damascus. However, after Hamas chose to support Sunni rebel groups in Syria, Hamas lost its Iranian funding and was forced to relocate to Doha.

Despite Qatar's denials, various reports indicate that it has recently expelled a number of senior Hamas officials including Saleh al-Arouri, who helped plan the kidnap and murder of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank in the summer of 2014. As one American columnist put it: "Five Arab nations just pulled off what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for years wished the West would do: exact a painful price on a nation for flirting with Hamas and Iran."

However, Israel's position is made more complex by the fact that in some ways Israel has benefited from the fact that Hamas is located in Qatar. According to some reports, a rift has emerged between "Hamas's Gaza-based military wing, which wants to reconcile with Iran, and its Qatar-based political wing, which wants to reconcile with Fatah, the Saudis and Egypt". Accordingly, it is argued that the new Hamas document which rejects Israel's right to exist, but "accepts the Palestinian ‘consensus' favoring a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders" emerged from the Hamas leadership in Qatar.

In addition, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani visited Gaza in 2012 and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for the strip. Qatar manages these funds through "a Qatari official who works in one of Gaza's upscale, half-empty seaside hotels". As such, Qatar has provided the money to rebuild thousands of homes and supply tens of millions of dollars of fuel.

Although Gaza is controlled by Hamas, cutting this money risks the vacuum being filled by Iranian funds. Unlike Qatar, Iranian money has in the past been mostly diverted to military projects and Iran has assisted Hamas in producing missiles that could strike Tel Aviv. As such, if Hamas is forced to seek a new patron outside of Qatar, this may leave Israel worse off. Another possibility is that if Hamas loses support, it could seek to launch a new war with Israel to regain sympathy from the Arab or Muslim world. Thus, while Israel wishes to squeeze Hamas, it still must avoid indirectly strengthening Hamas' position.

Israel-Qatar relations

It should also be noted that Qatar is the only Arab country that allows Israeli visitors and trade. As JJ Goldberg writes in The Forward:

After Israel and the Palestinians signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, Qatar was one of the six Arab states (out of 22) that opened formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Jordan and Mauritania concluded full relations with Israel and exchanged ambassadors. Morocco and Tunisia exchanged interest sections, a lower form of diplomatic relations. Qatar and Oman exchanged trade offices with Israel. All except Jordan downgraded relations and shut their offices after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, in 2000, and then cut off ties altogether in January 2009, after the first Gaza incursion.
But Qatar didn't cut all ties. It alone, among Arab states without diplomatic ties, continues to admit Israeli visitors and trade with Israel. It's allowed Israeli athletes to participate publicly in regional sports events, most recently in a 2016 Middle East beach volleyball championship in Qatar. No less important, its diplomats openly visit Israel. During the 2014 conflict between Israel and Gaza, Qatari diplomats shuttled between Israel and Gaza to negotiate a cease-fire (it was a rival Egyptian cease-fire that was eventually adopted). A year earlier, Qatar chaired the Arab League subcommittee that agreed to amend the league's 2002 peace initiative and to endorse territorial swaps to preserve Israeli settlement blocs.

Given all of these complexities, Israeli officials have generally stayed out of the fray since the crisis began. One exception is comments from Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in early June that the crisis "opens many opportunities for cooperation in the war against terror" and that "the State of Israel is more than open to such cooperation."

More recently Israel's Communications Minister Ayoub Kara announced that Israel would seek to "revoke the media credentials of Al Jazeera TV journalists, close its Jerusalem bureau and pull the Qatar-based station's broadcasts from local cable and satellite providers". However, it should be noted that this is actually far from occurring in practice because Israel's free speech laws require the security services to first make a supporting recommendation, and this has not yet occurred.

The Israeli measures aimed against Al Jazeera are not just a result of the current international campaign against Qatar. Israel also points to the role incitement by Al Jazeera played in the recent two weeks of violence over security measures at the Temple Mount. As leading Israeli security journalist Ron Ben Yishai reported during that crisis:

Al-Jazeera, for example... is promoting myths among the incited crowds in Jerusalem about hidden Israeli cameras allowing the Israeli security forces to see the naked body of the Muslim worshipper who innocently arrives to pray at the Temple Mount. The masses in Jerusalem and outside Jerusalem are enthusiastically buying into these theories, sticking to them and, most importantly, acting as if they were true.

It still remains to be seen what long-term effects the Qatar crisis will have on the region. For now, the blockade continues.

 

Image source: The Indian Express