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The Two Faces of Qatar

Shlomi Eldar considers Qatar's promoting peace based on compromises between Israel and the Palestinians while promoting a sectarian Islamic agenda by supporting armed groups in Syria. 
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani as they meet with members of the Arab League at Blair House in Washington, April 29, 2013.    REUTERS/Jason Reed     (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXZ41W

About a year ago, American journalist Bob Simon from the CBS News show 60 Minutes conducted an extensive interview with the two most powerful people in the Emirate of Qatar: Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabar Al Thani. The worldview that they described to him in fluent English was antithetical to fundamentalist Islam. While they expressed opposition to Western cultural icons and harmful Western influences, which, according to them, have penetrated their own perceptions of Islam, they nonetheless represent a certain openness to the West and a desire to be part of the global family of nations.

Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabar Al Thani, whose personal wealth is estimated at $2.5 billion, recently bought a townhouse in Manhattan from Jewish real estate agent Avi Rosen for a whopping $47 million. I was reminded of the CBS interview and the purchase of the home in Manhattan following the prime minister’s dramatic statement after his meeting in Washington with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden (April 29): “The Arab League delegation affirmed that agreement should be based on the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line, with the [possibility] of comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land.”

What’s the connection, you might ask, between the purchase of a big house in Manhattan and the dramatic statement that the Arab League agrees to swap land as part of a peace agreement? It turns out that economic prosperity and creative peace initiatives go hand in hand.

Ever since the Emirate of Qatar under the leadership of Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani emerged as a major player in the Arab League, the stream of Islam that is more open to the West has caused the Arab League to pursue rather liberal peace initiatives, while pushing the fundamentalist stream of Islam into a corner. It is quite reasonable to assume that a statement such as this by the Qatari prime minister would not have been made by Egypt’s new President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is unable to even utter the name “Israel.”

Right now, Morsi is busy dealing with the deep crisis facing Egypt, an enormous country which, until recently, stood at the forefront of the Arab world. He is desperately trying to restore public order and provide solid grounding for governmental institutions after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. While that is going on, the Emir of Qatar, a tiny principality in the Persian Gulf, has taken over the leadership of the Arab League.

Qatar may be tiny, but it has enormous oil and gas reserves. And it has another resource, which is no less important: the Al Jazeera news network. As far as the emir is concerned, the influence of Al Jazeera is worth its weight in gold. Through it, he can shape public opinion internationally as he sees best fit, and turn the hearts and minds of the Arab world to his pragmatic approach based on compromise. 

But there is a flip side to this as well. It is often claimed, and it has been written about on this very website, that Al Jazeera has forsaken its journalistic credibility in favor of its owners’ agenda. The network has played an active role — some might even say encouraged — the uprisings in countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Right now it is involved, at the emir’s behest, in the revolution underway in Syria. A month ago this site reported how an Al Jazeera film crew that was in the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin to cover Land Day events (March 2013) was attacked. The assailants, supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, hurled water bottles and other objects at the crew, and some of the crew members were injured. The reason given was that the network’s reporting on events in Syria is full of lies and that its coverage is decidedly one-sided, in favor of the rebels. The emir himself is known to be a fervent supporter of the rebels, and has contributed large sums of money to provide them with arms. Among the recipients of his munificence are militant jihadist groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra.

It has been reported more than once on this site that in a briefing to the Senate’s Intelligence Committee on March 12, 2013, the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated for the record that, “The bad news in all this, I believe, with respect to the opposition ... is the increasing prevalence of the al-Nusra Front, which is the al-Qaeda in Iraq offshoot that has gained strength both numerically and otherwise in Syria.” It was argued that the emir’s funding of this and similar groups will inevitably lead to more fighting, more bloodshed, and more casualties in that war-torn country.

Let us return, however, to Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In that instance, he advocates a peace treaty with Israel in order to end the bloody conflict. If changes to the boundaries are necessary as a result of new facts on the ground established by Israel since the 1967 War (meaning the occupation and the construction of new settlements), “then by all means do it.”

The problem is that the Emir of Qatar is not alone in the diplomatic playing field. Israel is the main player on that field, and it has never accepted the Saudi initiative, also known as the “Arab initiative.” That’s too bad. This could well be Israel’s last chance.

The Arab initiative calls for a peace agreement based on the 1967 boundaries, with an exchange of territories between Israel and Palestine. No less importantly, it ensures that all the members of the Arab League will accept the agreement and normalize their relations with Israel. In other words, it signals the end of the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.

Is that even possible?

Based on recent statements by the Qataris, the answer is yes.

The one remaining question is whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that the Qatari train is about to leave the station. Anyone who is not on board could find himself stuck in the station forever. 

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: Eyeless in Gaza (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and Getting to Know Hamas (2012).

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