The UAE and Bahrain signed a normalization agreement with Israel in September 2020 before the final days of the Trump administration. It has been the first time Israel officially established business relations and open embassies in the Gulf. The critiques draw our attention to the unofficial dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the constraints of such relations on the domestic context of Saudi Arabia. Eli Cohen, Israeli Intelligence Minister, recently emphasized that Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Niger are very close to reaching a normalization agreement with Israel. While there are controversies on who will be the next to join this normalization trend, Qatar differs from the other Gulf countries due to its significance in Israel’s regional and domestic security, particularly in Hamas. For the Qatar decision-makes, Qatar’s foreign policy’s enhancement to the Gaza strip, with the acknowledgment of Israel, strengthens Qatar’s mediation role between the interfering parties in the region and consolidates Qatar’s status irreplaceable for Israel, even without a normalization agreement, in the post-GCC crisis period.
One needs to note that the normalization decisions of the UAE and Bahrain came at a moment of the end of the GCC crisis that resumed in June 2017. Although the first signals of rapprochement began towards the end of 2020, the reconciliation happened in January 2021 in the al-Ula city of Medina with the attendance of the GCC members and the Trump administration’s senior adviser Jared Kushner. It appeared to be an endeavor of Israel coordinated with the Trump administration to ensure peace and dialogue among the GCC countries, which would ease their possibility of establishing a diplomatic dialogue with Israel later on. It is a calculated step of Israel’s foreign policy given the unpredictable regional dynamics and the US foreign policy during Joe Biden’s presidency.
Although Qatar does not have official diplomatic ties with Israel yet, it was the first Gulf country where Israel opened a trade office following a visit of Simon Peres, the President of Israel, to Doha in 1996. The office was closed in 2009 following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 but, later on, Qatar offered a deal to Israel by inviting Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, the head of the Israeli trade office, to reopen the office with the condition of allowing Qatar to import construction materials to Gaza. The offer was regarded as a national security threat to Israel and rejected due to its civilian-military threat, which showed the potential of Israel’s hand in initiating or terminating a dialogue with the Gulf countries.
For Israel, the blockade of the Gaza strip is obligatory to prevent Hamas from getting military and financial aid from outside to arms itself. On the other hand, agreeing with Qatar in the reconstruction of Gaza and sending financial aid to the Gaza people helps Israel reduce Iran’s hand to maneuver and weaken Iran’s influence on Hamas and the Gaza Strip. For Iran, the normalization process between Israel and the Gulf neighbors constitutes an existential threat to Iranian security, bringing the eternal enemy to its door. As Iran helped Qatar during the blockade on Qatar in 2017 by opening the Iranian airspace, the Qatari side clearly announced its intention to continue diplomatic and economic relations with Iran without asking the consent of any regional states given the right of sovereignty of Qatar. It particularly disturbs the Saudi and Israeli decision-makers and somehow brings them together against Iran. At this point, Qatar differs from Saudi Arabia and the UAE owing to the balancing strategy of its relations with Israel, Turkey, and Iran.
The relation between Qatar and Israel over the Gaza strip is far from unofficial cooperation if one remembers Israel’s decision to expel the Al-Jazeera channel from the country in the 2017 crisis. However, the decision of Egypt to reject goods and raw materials from Qatar through the Rafah border crossing after the 2017 Gulf crisis made Israel Qatar’s only means of transferring aid to Gaza. Qatar tightened its links with Gaza in 2012, after Qatar’s previous ruler, Emir Sheikh Hammad bin Khalifa visited Gaza. In tandem, Qatar has appeared to be the major actor working for the reconstruction of Gaza, and a channel between Israel and Hamas, especially after the 2014 Gaza war or Operation Protective Edge. Qatar funded construction project ‘Hamad City in Khan Yunis, constructed around 3000 housing in the southern Gaza Strip, built Salah al-Din highway, and opened Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Hospital for rehabilitation and prostheses. In 2019, Qatar invested $150 million in fuel subsidies in the Gaza Strip to help the Gaza people to overcome the power shortages. In January 2021, Hamas announced that Qatar would continue to provide humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and allocate $30 million for low-income families and build a $60 million natural gas pipeline from Israel into the Strip, which will ameliorate Gaza’s energy problem and economy.
Qatar is not in a hurry like the UAE and Bahrain to agree with Israel because it already has some specific dialogue with Israel over Gaza. Qatar does not aim to have a normalization with Israel with a motivation of getting closer to the US, particularly after the end of the Trump administration. A normalization process would not have economic reasons, too, despite Qatar initiating some Israeli investments like constructing the $6 million Doha Stadium for the Israeli-Arab soccer team Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin in 2005. Qatar’s wealth consolidates its role in Israel’s regional security policy and domestic security until a better option emerges for Israel. Both parties are aware of the significance of their unofficial coordination; for instance, Muhammad al-Emadi, the Qatari envoy to the Gaza Strip in charge of the Gaza rehabilitation project, stated Qatar’s helps to Gaza prevents the next war but “without Israel, sending aid to the Strip would not be possible”. Hassan al-Thawadi, the head of the Qatari committee of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, already announced Qatar would not make any problems for the Israelis like the other nationalities for watching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. However, Qatar feels responsible for avoiding presenting itself as an economic partner for Israel because it does not want to be a betrayer in the perception of the Palestinians. In tandem, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani already declared Qatar’s commitment to the Palestinian people’s right to establish their state following the 1967 borders and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative of Saudi King Abdullah.
Qatar legitimizes its dialogue with Israel in relation to humanitarian and reconstruction matters concerning the Palestinians. Qatar’s grand access to the Gaza strip, in comparison to other GCC countries, has helped Qatar to flash its regional role as a mediator in the regional conflicts during and after the 2017 Gulf crisis. Qatar’s closeness to the Hamas and Palestinian authority which the UAE or Bahrain cannot offer, given the mistrust of the Palestinian side to both, makes Qatar an irreplaceable Gulf actor for Israel. Qatar understands that the best way to reassert its decisive role as a mediator actor is to be a peacebuilder of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which its GCC neighbors cannot easily propose after the 2017 Gulf crisis.