October 29, 2012
Qatar has sought to take advantage of shifting political winds, repercussions of the so-called Arab Spring, to use its vast financial resources to extend its regional influence. Recep Tayyip Erdogan earnestly wanted to be the first head of state to visit Hamas-controlled Gaza. Turkey’s Islamist prime minister had hoped to add the stop to his Cairo visit in September 2011, when he also traveled to Tunisia and Libya to join new governments in celebrating the Islamist fruits of the Arab Spring. But he changed his mind just before leaving Turkey for his regional tour. “I will not visit Gaza, but I’m longing to visit Gaza as soon as possible,” said a disheartened Erdogan.
Erdogan’s interest in Gaza – and animosity toward Israel – reflects his eagerness to be the region’s Muslim champion of the Palestinians. This ambition soared after the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was stopped by Israeli forces while trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza. Many of the passengers were affiliated with the IHH, a Turkish Islamist group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The violence that greeted Israeli commandos, and the deaths of eight Turks, led to a further deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations and deepened Erdogan’s empathy for the Palestinians. Not just any Palestinians. He favors Hamas.
Another Muslim leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has hosted Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh in Tehran, had an opportunity to embrace him in Gaza City. Two years ago Hamas invited Ahmadinejad, hoping to mimic the publicity and morale boost that the Iranian president personally delivered to Hezbollah supporters during a visit to southern Lebanon in October 2010, when he stood near the border and looked into “the Zionist entity.”
Strangely, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and ideologically tied with Hamas, has not yet found time or displayed interest in visiting Gaza. A Morsi visit would elicit protest from both Jerusalem and Washington.
Ironically, it took the leader of one of the Arab world’s smallest and yet wealthiest countries to break the diplomatic barrier. Last week’s visit of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, who entered Gaza by car from Egypt, evidently with Morsi’s cooperation, will have lasting repercussions for Palestinians, Israel, the region and the United States.
Al-Thani proclaimed support for Palestinian aspirations and for Hamas.
From Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, there were expressions of concern. PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas has not been to Gaza since Hamas violently wrested control there more than five years ago. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also has been banned from Gaza.
For the Palestinians, though, Qatar’s diplomatic efforts thus far have been unsuccessful. The emir tried earlier this year to achieve the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation that has eluded Egypt and other mediators for years. With great fanfare, Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal signed in Doha another agreement that gathers dust. Al-Thani’s Gaza visit does not advance resolving Palestinian political differences, nor the chances of peace with Israel.
A tiny Islamist nation that supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and enjoys American security protection, Qatar is viewed by many in the West as a force of moderation in an increasingly turbulent sea of radicalism and violence.
Qatar played important roles in the political transformations in Libya and Tunisia by supporting Islamist groups in both nations, and is currently backing certain Islamist opponents of the Assad regime in Syria.
But Qatari and US visions for the Middle East do not dovetail. In Gaza the emir said nothing about peace with Israel. The more than 80 rockets that landed in Israel from Gaza the day after the emir’s visit, and the barrage that has continued since, give the impression that Qatar, a US ally, not only endorses the Hamas posture, but even encourages it.
Ironically, there was a time, not too long ago, when al-Thani’s maverick foreign policy suggested a more positive posture towards Israel. Shimon Peres, while serving as Israel’s prime minister, visited Qatar in 2006. Israel opened a low-level diplomatic legation in Doha. It was the heyday of Oslo, a period that saw US President Bill Clinton visit Gaza and address the Palestinian legislature.
Surely, an unmistakable sign of moderation would be to emulate the courage of Anwar Sadat, to recognize Israel and encourage other Arab leaders to do the same. Qatar, however, was quick to cut off any semblance of official ties to Israel during Operation Cast Lead. Now, Qatar has sought to take advantage of shifting political winds, repercussions of the so-called Arab Spring, to use its vast financial resources to extend its regional influence.
Qatar’s regional activism will demand the attention of President Obama or Gov. Romney after the US elections next week. The US should use its influence with Egypt, Qatar and other Arab governments to ensure that the emir’s Gaza initiative remains the exception.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.