A high-flyer at the center of efforts to negotiate temporary pauses and Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swaps, Qatar is catching flack for its relationship with Hamas that has enabled its mediation endeavour.
Even so, the flack, for now, has been drowned out by the Gulf state’s indispensability, established with the tacit endorsement of the United States and Israel.
Last month, Qatar negotiated a seven-day truce in the Gaza war and an exchange of more than 100 Hamas-held hostages for 240 Palestinians in Israeli jails.
On Friday, David Barnea, the head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, met in Oslo with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani to revive prisoner swap talks with Hamas.
Messrs. Barnea and Al-Thani were scheduled to meet in Warsaw on Monday with CIA director Bill Burns. Mr. Burns played a key role in negotiations that produced last month’s exchange.
Mr. Barnea hastily arranged his meeting with the Qatari official after Israeli forces without proper rules of engagement mistakenly killed three kidnapped Israelis that had escaped Hamas.
The killing sent shock waves through Israel. It reinforced popular demands that Israel prioritise the release of 128 remaining hostages abducted by Hamas during its October 7 attack on the Jewish state before prosecuting its goal of destroying the group.
Rather than welcome Qatar’s ability to mediate, far-right figures in Israel and the United States have taken the Gulf state to task for hosting exile Hamas leaders on its soil.
Amid calls by members of the US Congress for Hamas’ expulsion from Qatar, a senior Israeli foreign ministry official warned that Israel would “settle accounts” with the emirate once the Gaza war was over.
As if to reinforce that threat, Israeli airstrikes destroyed a Qatari-funded housing complex in Gaza on 2 December.
Qatar funded the complex as well as salaries of Hamas-controlled government employees in Gaza in coordination with Israel, which saw the Gulf state’s aid as a way of maintaining a semblance of stability in the Strip.
Moreover, with Hamas and the Western-backed Palestine Authority on the West Bank at loggerheads, Israel exploited Qatari support of Hamas to keep the Palestinian polity divided and incapable of equitably negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Qatari officials insist they decided in 2012 to host Hamas leaders after US President Barak Obama’s administration asked the Gulf state to establish an indirect channel through which it could communicate with the Islamist group.
“The presence of the Hamas office shouldn’t be confused with endorsement,” said Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ambassador to the US.
The United States agreed with Qatar in October to revisit the Gulf state’s relationship with Hamas once all hostages have been released.
Officials of both countries left open whether the review would lead to the expulsion of Hamas representatives or to restrictions on their ability to operate from the Gulf state.
What the review will entail is likely to depend on whether and in what state Hamas survives the Gaza war. A Hamas survival could mean that the United States, and for that matter Israel, will have a continued need for a backchannel.
Analysts note that Hamas, if it survives and is expelled from Qatar, would likely move to Iran, Syria, Lebanon, or Iran that would complicate future backchanneling.
The opening of Hamas’ Qatar office followed informal US and European outreach to draw Hamas into an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In 2010, the US State Department gave a rare green light to diplomat Rachel I. Schneller to publicly debate Beirut-based Hamas representative Osama Hamdan in a forum in Doha organized by the state-run Qatar Foundation.
The debate came on the heels of a meeting between Hamdan and Gaza-based Hamas official Mahmud Zahar and former US and European officials.
The officials included Thomas R. Pickering, an Arabic and Hebrew speaking former US Undersecretary of State and ambassador to the United Nations, Israel and Jordan; Robert Malley, then the Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s Middle East program director and former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, and ex-British UN ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock.
The meeting occurred as Israel negotiated the release by Hamas of Gilad Shalit who had been in Hamas captivity since 2006. Hamas released Mr. Shalit in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ Gaza leader, who now tops Israel’s most wanted list.
Following a familiar pattern of similar contacts with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation in the late 1970s and 1980s when the PLO was viewed in terms comparable to perceptions of Hamas today, the initial contacts with the Islamist group failed to produce results.
Taking place years before Hamas embarked on a convoluted and contradictory process that could lead to recognition of Israel, the talks foundered on deep-seated distrust on both sides.
The Americans and Europeans insisted that Hamas recognise Israel and renounce violence if it wanted to be part of a peace process.
In response, Hamas demanded evidence that the United States would pressure Israel to halt its West Bank settlement activity and seriously engage in peace talks.
Long suspected by right-wing Israelis and Americans, Qatar stands out among countries that support Hamas as a target of conservative ire, because of its long-standing relationships with Islamists and past support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Pressured by the United States, Malaysia this month cracked down on a local NGO that served as a major Hamas fundraiser. Authorities said they were investigating financial irregularities.
With the only non-Israeli border with Gaza, a history of governing Gaza until it was conquered by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war, and as an involuntary candidate recipient of Palestinian refugees if Israel acts on calls to ethnically cleanse the territory, Egypt is in a class of its own.
Meanwhile, Qatar is emerging as a winner from the Gaza war.
Qatar has “consolidated its position as a trusted and capable negotiator between Israel and Hamas… This is no mean accomplishment for Qatar which is now globally recognised as a mediator par excellence,” said prominent United Arab Emirates political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.