by Mitchell Plitnick
On January 31, the Israeli embassy in the United States stated that Israel did not approve of several right wing, pro-Israel American Jewish leaders meeting with senior officials, including the emir, of Qatar. “We oppose this outreach effort in the Jewish and pro-Israel community,” said embassy spokesman Itai Bar Dov.
It was an unusual, and in some ways bizarre, statement. What was Israel so worried about?
“There is nothing wrong with analysts and intellectuals traveling to Qatar to learn about the situation there,” explains Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “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.”
Schanzer’s words are even more astounding. The list of American Jews who visited Qatar included such names as Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America; Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations; and Alan Dershowitz, the civil rights attorney and fiery defender of both Israel and Donald Trump. Prominent Christian Zionist and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee also met with the Qatari emir.
Is there really some concern that these people, who have consistently defended Israel at every turn, will suddenly be taken in by a slick Qatari message? Are we to believe that Israel and a prominent neoconservative US leader like Schanzer is concerned that the likes of Dershowitz, Klein, and Hoenlein—who spend a great deal of time developing their Middle East messages—have not heard anything about Qatari support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood? It’s hard to imagine that is what the Israeli government is concerned about.
It is more likely that Israel is concerned not with these specific meetings, but with Qatar’s broader “charm offensive,” and the conversation it threatens to ignite in the United States. Since the crisis in the Gulf erupted last year, Qatar has made a concerted effort to change its image in the United States. It have poured millions of dollars into Washington lobbying firms. A new think tank, the Gulf International Forum, is seen as friendly to Doha, and is viewed by some as a counter to the more Saudi-friendly Arabia Foundation.
A Qatari Foothold in Washington
Qatar, unlike some other countries that would like to improve their image in the United States, is a US ally that serves key US interests in the Middle East. The Al Udeid air base in Qatar is a focal point for US counter-terrorism operations in the Gulf. Qatar is a major oil and natural gas producer. With a 2017 GDP per capita of about $124,000, it ranks by some measures as the richest country in the world.
These factors are a big part of why Trump administration officials scrambled so quickly last year after the president, with his customary careful consideration, threw his lot in with the Saudis against Qatar in a tweet. On June 6, 2017, Trump tweeted, “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!” The State Department tried to contain the damage almost immediately, tweeting, “Secretary Tillerson: GCC must emerge united & stronger to show the word the GCC’s resolve in its fight against violence & terrorism.” But continued mixed messages from Trump ensured that the damage was done.
The relationship with Qatar was a big part of what administration officials struggled to make Trump understand, but so was the danger of a widening rift in the Gulf. That issue remains alive today.
These factors give the Qataris a foothold in Washington, but so does the relative closeness of their goal. While the Palestinians have struggled for decades to improve their image in the United States with negligible results—even when polls show declining support for Israel, Palestinian approval ratings generally remain low—the Qataris are not trying to compete with Israel, but with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, although at least as strategically important in Washington as Israel, are not well liked by Americans.
The Discussion We’re Not Having
As Qatar presses its campaign in the United States, the accusations against it could become a matter of discussion. Yet scant attention has been paid to the root causes of the Saudi-Qatari friction, which also involves Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates on the Saudi side. Such a conversation would raise some serious questions about US policy in the Gulf and could even be seen as disturbing enough to create a serious push for change in that policy.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE presented a list of 13 demands to Qatar. But those demands can be boiled down to a few major points: shut down al-Jazeera, stop backing groups the other GCC and Arab states aligned with Saudi Arabia disapprove of, and keep distance from Iran.
There would be little sense for Qatar to adhere to any of those demands. They need to work with Iran to administer a massive shared natural gas reserve, the South Pars/North Dome Field, the two countries jointly exploit. Qatar also sees itself as a bridge-builder between Iran and the Arab world, even though it does not support Iran’s regional ambitions.
Al-Jazeera is a key source of strength for Qatar for the same reason the Saudis hate it. Its rise as not just a regional but a global news network makes it very powerful. Pro-Saudi forces and the Israeli government and its supporters have accused Al-Jazeera of bias. On issues of particular importance to Doha, especially internal affairs and some regional ones, Al-Jazeera has a clear pro-Qatari bias. But in most of its reporting, it generally demonstrates no more bias than other mainstream media outlets. As Chas Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia said to me, “This allows Qatar to punch above its weight.”
Qatar clearly supports groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and supported anti-government forces during the Arab Spring. It has also been a major source of support for Hamas as the rulers of Gaza, although its support for Hamas’s more militant activities is less clear.
Also unclear are the accusations that Qatar has indirectly supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and even the Islamic State. Yet even those advocating a decidedly militaristic approach to the Middle East in general, and who vocally accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, agree that this same accusation holds at least as much weight when directed at US ally, Saudi Arabia.
This is where the discussion in the United States could get tricky. The whole idea of terrorism has been so politicized for so many years even before 9/11. During the years of the George W. Bush administration, anti-Saudi sentiment at times seemed like it could eventually undermine the US-Saudi alliance. That died down long before any real threat to the relationship materialized. But given that the U.S. public does not view Saudi Arabia with much favor, it’s a scab that policymakers would prefer not to irritate.
That’s why a debate over Qatar is not welcome, especially now in the United States, and especially not in the hardline, pro-Israel Jewish community. Donald Trump can embrace his fawning Saudi friends all he wants, but his love for the Saudi royal family is not shared even among his own base of support in the US. With efforts now afoot to maximize the ability of Israel and Saudi Arabia, along with its prominent Arab backers, to work together, the last place policymakers across the spectrum want to see a Qatar-Saudi debate materialize is in the pro-Likud Jewish community.
That strategy will continue to be pursued, regardless of Israel’s current domestic turmoil. And that strategy is not served by Qatari outreach to right-wing Jews. It is not served by opening a debate over who’s worse, Saudi Arabia or Qatar, in the oversimplified lexicon of American political debate. The outcome is not likely to be one the US, Israel, or Saudi Arabia would favor.
Photo: Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.