Are Israel and Qatar allies or enemies?

Prof. Elie Podeh December 2023
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

President Isaac Herzog met with Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, at the recent Climate Change Conference in Dubai. Mossad Director Davis Barnea also visited Qatar several times in recent weeks to negotiate for the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza, while a Qatari delegation set up a liaison office in Israel to coordinate the exchange of Israeli and Palestinian prisoners.

However, Qatar also hosts Hamas leaders on its territory, the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera network and its leaders frequently criticize and demonize Israel, while Qatari money funds Hamas and other terrorist organizations as well as leading academic institutions around the world to promote Islamic messages. What, then, is Qatar – an enemy or a friend of Israel?

In order to answer this question, let us travel back in time three decades.

The history of formal and secret relations between Israel and Qatar

Clandestine ties were first established between Israel and Qatar immediately after the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. That same month, the Qataris initiated the first secret meeting between then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and his Qatari counterpart at the home of Qatar’s ambassador to the United Nations. This relationship continued intermittently until April 1996, when formal relations were established. These were designated a “trade office,” but functioned as embassies in all but name.

Even before the establishment of formal relations. Israel examined the possibility of purchasing gas from Qatar in 1994-1995. The contacts were secret, but Qatar did not deny them when leaked to the media. The two sides even signed a memorandum of understanding, although Israel ultimately opted for Egyptian gas, which was also cheaper. Nonetheless, Israel played the Qatari card in order to exert pressure on Egypt, which was dragging its feet on signing the gas deal. Netanyahu’s election as prime minister in May 1996 lowered the profile of relations, but high-level behind-the-scenes meetings continued, mainly on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Qatar, like Morocco, Oman, and Tunisia, closed its diplomatic mission in Israel in 2000 in response to the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada. However, unlike the other three countries, it quickly restored relations, which even improved in terms of coordination, and then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni maintained excellent relations with the Qatari leadership.

Qatar suspended official ties once again during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009. It put out feelers on resuming them after the war, but Netanyahu and then-foreign minister Liberman rejected the idea in light of what they called “duplicitous” Qatari policy – hinting at Qatar’s continued financial assistance to terrorist organizations. In tandem, however, Israeli officials and business people continued to visit Qatar in secret, and messages were exchanged. Arab media reported that Netanyahu met secretly with the Qatari prime minister in May 2011 in Paris.

Qatar’s ties with Hamas, especially after its takeover of Gaza in 2007, enabled it to play a mediating role during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. The fact that Egypt was then ruled by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood helped achieve a quick ceasefire. Soon after, Qatar appointed Mohammed al-Amedi as ambassador to Gaza. In this capacity he established good rapport with politicians and military figures in Israel. Following Operation Protective Edge in 2014, an official and orderly mechanism was established (called the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism) to transfer Qatari money to finance civilian projects in Gaza. It is assumed that some of these funds found their way into the Hamas coffers to finance terrorism.

Occasional clandestine contacts continued. For example, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and the then-head of the IDF’s Southern Command Herzi Halevi visited Qatar in February 2020 and met with the heads of security and intelligence agencies. And in March 2022, then-IDF chief Aviv Kohavi reportedly met in Bahrain with his Qatari counterpart to examine cooperation against the threat of Iranian drones.

Qatar’s connection with Israel is part of a broader range of ties with the West in general, and with the United States in particular. The main headquarters of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which has responsibility for the Middle East, is located in Qatar. Thousands of US troops are also deployed in the Al Udeid Air Base southwest of Doha and the US military also has access to the Hamad seaport. In January 2022, US President Joe Biden granted Qatar non-NATO status as a major ally – a status that even Saudi Arabia still does not enjoy. Qatar has also signed several defense deals with the United States totaling billions of dollars.

Thus, Qatar’s foreign and security policy seeks to maintain good ties with diverse countries in the region and around the globe in order to achieve two main goals. The first is to ensure maximum security for the small wealthy country in an arena fraught with risks and potential enemies. The second goal is to gain global and regional influence and prestige through the enormous wealth generated by the gas fields located in its territory. To achieve its goals, Qatar uses “soft” diplomacy by funding sports, culture, education, academia and providing mediation services. Indeed, Qatar’s relations with many players have made it a valuable mediator in multiple arenas: Afghanistan (between the United States and the Taliban), Lebanon (in local politics), Sudan and Somalia (among civil war rivals), in the Palestinian arena (Fatah and Hamas), and, of course, between Israel and Hamas.

The most appropriate term for describing Israel-Qatar relations is the academic term “frenemies” – a combination which encompasses friendly but also antagonistic policies. Some interpret this relationship as a camouflage and dangerous deception. However, a closer look reveals that it has served both countries well in the past, and continues to serve them during this war in obtaining hostage releases.

Qatar would exert a lot of influence to maintain its role in Gaza in the “day after,” yet Israel should seek to diminish this role as far as possible. Saudi Arabia may look as a possible alternative, but it is unclear whether Crown Prince bin Salman is interested at all in embroiling himself in the Gaza quagmire.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post on December 15th.

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