Qatar is Go-To Mediator in Mi 11/27 07:05
JERUSALEM (AP) -- The deal seemed on the verge of unraveling. Hamas had
accused Israel of failing to keep its side of the bargain and Israel was
threatening to resume its lethal onslaught on the Gaza Strip.
That was the point at which a Qatari jet landed at Israel's Ben-Gurion
International Airport on Saturday. Negotiators aboard set to work, seeking to
save the cease-fire deal between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers before it fell
apart and scuttled weeks of high-stakes diplomatic wrangling.
The first public visit by Qatari officials to Israel marked an extraordinary
moment for the two countries, which have no official diplomatic relations. It
also underscored the major role of the tiny emirate in bridging differences
between the enemies.
"This is something we've never seen before," Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow
at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said of the
Qataris' stay in Israel. "It's the only external actor in the world with that
much leverage on Hamas, because of its many years of support."
The weekend mission was successful, and most of the team jetted home. But
several Qatari mediators stayed behind to work with Israeli intelligence
officials on extending the four-day truce, which ends Tuesday morning,
according to a diplomat briefed on the visit who spoke on condition of
anonymity because of the sensitivity.
With its close ties to the United States --- it hosts the largest American
military base between Europe and Japan --- its communication with Israel since
1995 and its support of blockaded Gaza to the tune of what estimates suggest is
more than $1 billion since 2014, Qatar is uniquely positioned to break
deadlocks in the cease-fire talks, which also involve the U.S. and Egypt.
"We need Qatar," Guzansky said of Israel, noting that other Arab countries
increasingly have interests in Israel and are normalizing their relations.
"Qatar is seen as the only player in the Arab world that is loyal to the
The emirate has hosted an overseas Hamas political office since 2012,
allowing Qatar to wield some influence over the militant group's
decision-makers. Top Hamas officials, including the group's supreme leader,
Ismail Haniyeh, live in Qatar.
Qatar says Hamas' political office in its capital, Doha, came about at the
request of U.S. officials who wanted to establish a communication channel, just
as Doha had hosted Taliban offices during America's 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Qatari officials say they are guided by a desire to reduce conflict, though
their ties with a range of Islamist groups, including Hamas, the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt and the Taliban have drawn criticism from Israel, some
U.S. lawmakers and neighboring Arab governments.
"This is soft power on steroids, mobilized for America's interest," said
Patrick Theros, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar. "Hosting organizations which
the United States cannot be seen talking to is part of this policy."
The wealthy Gulf Arab state with a native population of just 300,000 has
leveraged its strategic location and tremendous natural gas riches to wield
political influence and project soft power around the world, including as host
of the 2022 World Cup.
In the Israel-Hamas hostage negotiations, Qatari mediators, joined by those
from Egypt and the U.S., faced the task of getting the warring sides to put
faith in diplomacy when trust was sub-zero.
Over the weekend, Hamas complained that Israel had violated the terms of
their cease-fire and said the deal was in danger. Only 137 trucks with badly
needed humanitarian aid made it through on Friday, the first day of the truce,
and 187 on the second day, according to the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency.
Israel had promised to permit 200 a day.
Qatari officials resorted to face-to-face meetings with Israeli officials to
try to save the deal, according to the diplomat. A few hours with Mossad
officials in Tel Aviv proved crucial on Saturday. Suddenly, the deal was back
on. Hamas handed over its second batch of Israeli hostages, families in the
West Bank rejoiced over another 39 women and teenagers freed from prison, and
Palestinians in Gaza emerged from their shelters to search for fuel and missing
Qatar's assistant foreign minister, Lolwah Al-Khater, became the first
foreign official to visit the besieged Gaza Strip on Sunday. He used the pause
in fighting to survey the disputed influx of aid, meet wounded Palestinians and
talk with Wael al-Dahdouh, Gaza bureau chief of Qatari-funded Al Jazeera, who
lost his wife, son and grandchild in an Israeli airstrike. The pan-Arab
broadcaster, which has more cameras in Gaza than any other news outlet, has
dominated Arabic coverage of the war.
Despite their differences, both Israel and Hamas have an interest in
prolonging calm. Even as bigger questions mount over what happens after the
war, a Qatari official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the
sensitivity of ongoing negotiations says his country stays focused on what's
immediately possible, such as maintaining the cease-fire and preventing a
regional war that draws in Hamas' Iranian patrons or Lebanon's Hezbollah
A steady stream of officials have passed through Doha to that end, including
Iran's foreign minister, Lebanon's caretaker prime minister and the director of
"There is no conflict that began and ended on the battlefield," Majed
al-Ansari, spokesperson for Qatar's Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press
on Monday. "Now, as hostages are being released and there are pauses in the
fighting, we might be able to find a solution."