Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East
According to Israeli media reports, the heads of the Mossad and of the IDF’s southern command secretly visited Qatar in early February. The visit validates comments made to me by a Qatari senior that is closely associated with the government whom I met on my visit there in 2018. The Qatari described the excellent relations between highly regarded figures in Israel and Qatar, and emphasized the successful cooperation between the two countries.
These events point to a change in Israel-Qatar relations, from mutual hostility to unusual cooperation. In recent decades, Qatar was an inciting agent that threatened to destabilize Arab regimes whose survival Israel sought to ensure. Qatar led a confrontational line encouraging extremism and supporting jihadist activity, nurturing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. As well as being close to Turkey, Qatar supplied broad economic infrastructure for Hamas and conducted economic relations with Iran, positioning it alongside Israel’s biggest enemies.
However, the turbulent reality in the Middle East challenged the rivalry between Israel and Qatar and prompted a fundamental change in their relationship. Gaza required extensive and comprehensive rehabilitation following the destruction and devastation resulting from Operation Protective Edge in 2014, a time in which Arab states were refusing to provide financial support to the Hamas leadership. Officials in Jerusalem realized that the chaotic situation in Gaza was a powder keg, which, if not properly addressed, could result in an additional round of fighting with Hamas. In that sense, Israel found an ally in Qatar, which offered over one billion dollars in humanitarian aid for Gaza. Qatar viewed the investment in Gaza as a moral and ideological commitment as well as an opportunity to assume a key mediating role between Gaza and Israel, especially since the traditional mediators in this arena, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were hostile to Qatar, and were lowering their profile and focusing on their domestic affairs.
Qatar thus underscored and strengthened its regional standing, as well as tightening relations with the US administration. Israel would have undoubtedly preferred Saudi or Egyptian aid, but lacking other alternatives, the scene was set for unusual and rare cooperation between the two states based on a common interest. Israel also assumed that absent the Qatari alternative, Hamas would tighten its relations with Iran in an effort to obtain additional funding.
Israel is well aware that Qatar cannot bring about a diplomatic breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of its limited power and influence, but that does not negate its importance as a key player in mediation between Israel and Hamas. The mediation undertaken by Qatar’s envoy to Gaza Mohammed al-Emadi, alongside the contributions of Egypt and of the UN’s envoy Mladenov, were instrumental in postponing further bouts of violence, even at times when Israel seemed to no longer be willing to adopt restraint.
The mutual understanding over Gaza created a unique situation. While there is no solution on the horizon for the Palestinian problem, the Israel-Qatar dialogue is breaking through previous barriers and redefining relations. However, these are functional, relations aimed at achieving calm in Gaza by means of economic and humanitarian aid. The Qatari position has traditionally been, and continues to be pro-Palestinian. In other words, it demands full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and supports the right of the Palestinian people to their own state. As a result, as long as no progress is made on the Palestinian issue, relations between Doha and Jerusalem will remain limited in quality and extent, despite their promising potential.
To sum up, there is still a long way ahead until official diplomatic recognition between the states is reached, but that does not cancel out the shift in their relations. In just a few years, Israel and Qatar relations has evolved from enmity to strategic partnership regarding the Gaza Strip. This does not mean Qatar has abandoned its historic ties with Israel’s enemies, but its view of the Palestinian issue is no longer based on binary concepts of assailant and victim, but rather on recognition of the joint responsibility of the various elements for the Gaza crisis.
The Israeli leadership will presumably keep harboring suspicions of Qatar in years to come. However, unlike the past, this suspicion does not rule out relations with Qatar, it simply delineates them. While Qatar is not a natural Israeli ally, its great interest in Israeli science and technology could serve as the basis for extensive future cooperation in additional fields.
Dr. Michal Yaari is an expert on the Gulf states at Haifa University and the Open University, and a task team member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. This article is based on a research she wrote at the Mitvim Institute on Israel-Qatar relations.