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Understanding Israel’s Relationship with Qatar

Though formal normalization seems unlikely for now, Tel Aviv and Doha maintain important, though unofficial, ties.

The U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, which formalized relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel on August 13, was a watershed in the history of Israel-Gulf relations. Since the UAE-Israel deal’s announcement, many experts have been debating which Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member, if any, would likely be next to follow in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps. Perhaps Qatar is the most interesting one to consider.

Although possible, Doha will probably not normalize relations with Tel Aviv any time soon due to multiple factors. These include Qatar’s special geopolitical position in the Middle East and the extent to which ‘soft power’ and themes related to rights, dignity, and justice shape Doha’s foreign policy. However, the odds are good that Qatar will continue to pragmatically engage Israel even if formalization of relations is unlikely.

Qatar: The Gulf Region’s Enigma 

Sieged by its immediate neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula since June 2017, Qatar has escaped from its neighbors’ orbits of geopolitical influence over the past three years. Today, Doha feels no obligation to conform to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy agendas as it did in the pre-blockade era. Therefore, Qatar, unlike Bahrain, is under no political or economic pressure to follow the UAE’s lead regarding normalization of relations with Israel. Instead, Qatar will approach Israel/Palestine in ways that cater to its unique interests. 

As a geographically tiny state with a small military, Qatari clout is heavily tied to ‘soft power,’ which in Doha’s case is largely connected to narratives related to social justice, human rights, and pan-Arabist causes such as the Palestinian struggle. Qatari officials frequently use international forums to speak on behalf of the Palestinians. Samuel Ramani, who is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, maintains that the UAE-Israel deal could “burnish [Qatar’s] soft power as a defender of Palestinian rights.” Moreover, since Trump announced the Abraham Accords on August 13, Qatari-owned media outlets such as Al Jazeera have been focusing heavily on the Palestinian perspective of the UAE-Israel deal, featuring many guests who have been harshly condemning and criticizing the “peace deal” while broadcasting images of angry Palestinians displaying their rage toward the UAE. 

According to Dr. Courtney Freer, a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre, Qatar’s relationship with Hamas, which Doha has hosted for years, would make it “difficult for Qatar then to turn around and essentially accept a normalized relationship with Israel under Netanyahu.” The Qataris “would lose a lot of credibility with Arab publics everywhere if they did immediately normalize relations with Israel following what the Emiratis did,” argued Dr. Freer. “So I would not anticipate any major change in Qatari policy soon.” Yet she also caveated her comments by reminding us that “it’s 2020, so we never really know.”

Washington’s Influence

There is no avoiding the Trump factor. Since the Gulf crisis erupted in mid-2017, Qatari officials have been determined to stay on good terms with the unpredictable American president. Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri, the Director of Gulf Studies Centre at the University of Qatar, posited that “the UAE-Israel treaty may add some political pressure on Qatar when it comes to relations with the U.S., especially if Trump stays in the White House.” Doha is undeniably concerned about how the Abraham Accords could help position Abu Dhabi as the White House’s favorite partner in Gulf, especially if the UAE is the only GCC member to have a formalized bilateral relationship with Tel Aviv.

On August 31, President Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner led U.S. and Israeli delegations, which flew from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi on the first Israeli commercial jet to make that flight. The purpose of these delegations coming to the UAE was to cement the Abraham Accords in a series of talks with Emirati officials. After leaving the UAE, Kushner visited other GCC states, including Qatar. 

While in Doha on September 4, Kushner met with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Despite Kushner urging Qatar along with all other Arab states to normalize their relations with Tel Aviv, Qatar’s head of state affirmed Doha’s commitment to the two-state solution in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002 and countless UN General Assembly resolutions. Put simply, Emir Tamim stressed that Qatar would not formalize its relationship with Israel unless and until a Palestinian state is formed with a capital in East Jerusalem.

Despite Qatar coming under pressure following the UAE-Israel deal, however, it seems unlikely that Washington’s influence would prompt Qatar to formalize diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, at least any time soon. “First, there is a very strong feeling against full normalization both at the popular and the elite level,” according to an informed observer in Doha. “Second, [Qataris] don’t need to, as they have a good enough record of pragmatically cooperating with Israel.” This brings us to the fact that even though there is no Israeli embassy in Doha—nor a Qatari one in Tel Aviv—there is a Qatari-Israeli relationship. 

Doha’s Unofficial Relationship with Israel

In the 1990s, Qatar and other GCC states took steps to form unofficial diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. When Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad took the helm in 1995, Qatar began a new era defined by liberalization and changes in its foreign policy which included exploration of dialogue with the Jewish State. 

Following Emir Hamad’s ascendancy to the throne, Qatar launched Al Jazeera. This network broke almost every conventional rule in the Arab world’s media landscape. Al Jazeera hosting Israeli government officials on its programs was one of many examples of the ways in which this satellite channel was extremely taboo. Also, in 1996, the Qataris allowed Israel to open a trade representative office in their capital. But officials in Doha responded to the Second Intifada of 2000 by shutting this office down—a move which Qatar made under some pressure from Libya, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, Israel managed to maintain a “token presence” via this mission in Qatar until 2009, when the Qatari government shut it down permanently to show support for Palestinians amid Operation Cast Lead, which resulted in 1,400 Palestinian deaths, including 300 children.

Nonetheless, the trade office’s permanent closure did not spell the end of Qatar’s engagement with the Jewish State. Four years after Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza, Israel sent a delegation to Qatar to discuss the Gulf state’s potential interest in investing in Israel’s hi-tech industry. In 2019, an Israeli athlete won a gold medal at the 9th Artistic Gymnastics World Cup Series which Doha hosted. The playing of the Israeli national anthem and raising of the Israeli flag made many headlines in the international press, leading many analysts to point to it as a further sign of thawing relations between Israel and GCC states. It also led to many Qataris and other Arabs becoming angry and expressing their outrage on social media.

Arguably, the most important aspect of Qatari-Israeli engagement over the years has been Doha’s humanitarian assistance to Gaza, which the Qataris have done in coordination with Israel. At the same time, Qatar has played a bridging role between Israel and Hamas, as well as between Washington and Hamas. Thus, notwithstanding the Gulf state and Israel having never formalized diplomatic ties, and Israeli politicians sometimes harshly condemning Qatar for its relationship with Hamas, Tel Aviv values its pragmatic relationship with Doha. Netanyahu did not openly side with the blockading states against Qatar after the GCC crisis erupted in mid-2017, which attests to this point. 

Last month, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen was in contact with high-ranking officials in Doha for discussions about mounting tensions in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. On August 25, Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Emadi entered Gaza with a delegation for discussions with Hamas which were aimed at de-escalating violence between the Islamist group and Tel Aviv. Six days later, Hamas and Israel successfully reached a Qatar-brokered deal to prevent the violence from further escalating. In response, the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin expressed his gratitude to al-Emadi in a tweet which pointed out the Qatari diplomat’s “intensive efforts to stop the escalation and to calm the situation.” 

Looking ahead, this question about normalization of ties with the Jewish State will constitute a dilemma for Qatar, and one which Doha must address cautiously. Doha will likely have to balance its commitment to the API and pan-Arab causes on one side with pressures coming from the US on the other. 

The odds are good that Qatar along with other GCC states will embrace somewhat of a ‘wait-and-see-approach’ to take note of possible blowback thrown at Abu Dhabi. Nonetheless, with Qatar’s unique foreign policy, officials in Doha will assess the option of establishing full-fledged relations with Israel in ways that are fundamentally different from how the UAE’s leadership does so. Undoubtedly if Doha would ever normalize diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, it would be in a Qatari, not Emirati, way. 

Until that moment of formalized relations between Qatar and Israel, which is by no means inevitable, Doha will continue trying to improve the situation in Gaza. Doing so will require hard work and not necessarily flashy ceremonies, such as those following the UAE-Israel deal. Yet these efforts will increase Qatar’s ‘soft power’ in the region and further institutionalize Doha’s role as a diplomatic bridge in the conflict-ridden Middle East, to the benefit both of Palestinians and Israelis. 

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Claire Fuchs (@Clairee_Fuchs) is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.