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Analysis

Backing Palestinians at World Cup, Qatar takes aim at pro-normalization neighbors

Allowing Palestinian flags and showing off the limits of the Abraham Accords, Doha has positioned itself as the anti-UAE, though it may leave its anti-Israel stance on the pitch

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Supporters of Tunisia hold a flag that reads "Free Palestine" during the World Cup group D soccer match between Tunisia and Australia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, November 26, 2022. (AP/Petr David Josek)
Supporters of Tunisia hold a flag that reads "Free Palestine" during the World Cup group D soccer match between Tunisia and Australia at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar, November 26, 2022. (AP/Petr David Josek)

A lot of ink has been spilled detailing the chilly responses Israeli reporters have received from soccer fans from around the world upon identifying themselves at the World Cup in Qatar.

One particular interaction — in which a Yedioth Ahronoth journalist shouted “But we have peace! You signed peace!” at a group of young Moroccan fans who immediately walked away after he revealed where he was from — has been used by critics to argue that the spirit of Arab-Israeli harmony promised by the Abraham Accords has failed to spread across the region, let alone take hold among those whose governments signed normalization agreements with Israel.

Analysts who spoke with The Times of Israel agreed that the pro-Palestinian sentiment at the World Cup demonstrates the limits of the deals Israel signed with the Emirati, Bahraini and Moroccan governments and surmised that the Arab street is unlikely to warm to Israel as long as its military control over the Palestinians continues.

But the embrace of Palestinians by fans and teams at the World Cup can also be understood through a geopolitical lens — one in which Qatar is determined to present itself as a competitive foil to the fast-rising United Arab Emirates.

Whereas the UAE has taken to cooperating with Israel and bucking popular pro-Palestinian sentiment in order to boost its regional stature, Qatar has preferred a different route, one which trades on an embrace of Arab populism as a path to political clout.

Within the confines of its often repressive authoritarian regime, that has meant allowing and encouraging expressions of support for Palestinians on and off the field, as the whole world looks on.

Street cred

At street markets in Doha and throughout Qatar, Palestinian flags are being sold at a lower rate than flags of other countries. A Middle Eastern diplomat on the ground told The Times of Israel that Qatari authorities have also footed the bill for hotels to hand out complimentary Palestinian flags to guests.

Fans at stadiums are not allowed to wave flags that don’t belong to one of the teams playing in a particular match, but the rule has emphatically not applied to Palestinian flags, which have peppered crowds at every game throughout the tournament.

France’s Theo Hernandez celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the World Cup semifinal soccer match between France and Morocco at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (AP/Francisco Seco)

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, characterized the Qatari position as an expression of “soft power.”

In lieu of a substantial military force, Doha has sought to exert influence in other ways, including by maintaining a “populist reputation,” Ibish said.

A decade ago, in the throes of the Arab Spring, Qatar positioned itself at the vanguard of supporting Muslim Brotherhood factions throughout the region, breaking with Sunni-dominated countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE who opposed the Islamist political movement.

At the time, the role of Islamism in politics was a central issue in a regional rivalry that pitted Qatar and Turkey against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In recent years, though, the issue has largely fallen by the wayside as Muslim Brotherhood factions failed to maintain a political foothold in places where they were initially able to capitalize on popular upheavals.

The Brotherhood doesn’t cut it anymore, but Palestine still does.

With political Islam no longer a major issue, Qatar has been able to reach a sort of rapprochement with the rest of the Gulf after years of bitter enmity. But it has also left Doha looking for other ways to gain influence and support throughout the region, Ibish explained.

He pointed to the petro-kingdom’s promotion of a conservative Islamist worldview on gender, LGBTQ issues, and social conduct. Qatar has barred players and fans from wearing expressions of support for the LGBTQ community, along with the sale of alcohol at games.

Support for the Palestinian cause is part of that package as well. “That sort of populism is one of the few things left to the Qataris to push their populist brand effectively in the Arab world,” Ibish said. “The Brotherhood doesn’t cut it anymore, but Palestine still does.”

Morocco’s players celebrate with a Palestinian flag at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 soccer matches between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 6, 2022. (Glyn Kirk/AFP)

Ibish noted a degree of irony in the current Qatari position, given that it had “driven [Doha] crazy not to have been the first Gulf country to normalize with Israel.” Qatar had developed more formal diplomatic ties with Israel well before the UAE and even operated a trade office in Tel Aviv for nearly two decades. Doha has also long taken pride in its ability to maintain diplomatic contacts with players on all sides of political divides.

But at the time the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, Qatar was more dependent on Turkey, which still had its diplomatic ties with Israel in the deep freeze.

“It would’ve been very off-brand for Qatar at that moment” to follow the UAE and Bahrain in normalizing ties with Jerusalem, Ibish argued.

Instead, Qatar has leaned into its decision to shy away from Israel, capitalizing on apathy toward the Abraham Accords across much of the Arab world.

“If they can’t be the ones to benefit from normalization with Israel, at least they can benefit from not doing so,” Ibish said.

A poll released Tuesday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 68 percent of Palestinians think Qatar’s international standing has improved as a result of the manner in which it put on this year’s World Cup.

Qatar has found a niche in working quietly with the Israeli security establishment regarding policy in the Gaza Strip while publicly aligning itself with the Palestinian cause, said Celine Touboul, CEO of the Economic Cooperation Foundation, an organization that promotes advancing ties between Israelis and Palestinians.

What it has done at the World Cup “is a further extension of that role. It doesn’t see a contradiction between the two,” she argued.

Former president Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Uncertain future for accords

Despite the grassroots opposition to Israel that came to the fore in Qatar, Ibish speculated that normalization with the UAE and Bahrain remains on solid ground because of their interest in advancing economic, technological, and security cooperation with Israel.

In contrast to much of the Arab world, the Abraham Accords is largely a matter of consensus in the UAE, according to Ibish, who claimed that both policymakers and civilians find them to be a positive, yet “distasteful,” development.

“They’re looking for a partner in the region to advance major technological projects, and the only plausible partner is Israel,” he said. “They’re not so much as excited about Israel and the Israelis as they are excited about what can be done between the two countries.”

However, he argued that major violence in Jerusalem, or a move by the next government to change the status quo in Jerusalem or the West Bank, would be significant enough to disrupt ties.

“I don’t think it’s going to stop the UAE from continuing existing projects, but new cooperative announcements are going to be much more difficult to make,” Ibish said.

The makeup of Israel’s hardline government in-waiting could also complicate efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, though prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu insists his goal is to broaden Israel’s roster of friends in the region.

There is plenty of precedent for backsliding in Israel’s regional diplomatic standing, from Qatar’s decision to shutter its Tel Aviv trade office in 2009 against the backdrop of violence in Gaza and Morocco’s shuttering of its Tel Aviv liaison office in 2002 to protest the bloodshed of the Second Intifada.

“A lot of Israelis seem to think that they’re making real headway toward acceptance in the region. In a way they obviously have, but sometimes it’s misconstrued,” Ibish argued. “Yes, there’s an understanding that Israel is here to stay… but at the same time, people are not okay with the occupation, and as long as the occupation is there, people are going to really dislike the Israeli government, Israeli policies, and to some extent, Israelis too.”

What happens in Doha, stays in Doha

Michael Milstein, a former adviser on Palestinian affairs to the Defense Ministry, agreed that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians explains a large part of the hostility to the Jewish state at the World Cup.

Still, he cautioned against buying into the “illusion” that the Arab world’s hostility to Israel will end once the Palestinian issue is resolved, explaining that the sentiment “runs much deeper.”

Nonetheless, he viewed the Israeli experience at the World Cup positively because it “succeeded in bringing Israeli citizens in direct contact with the Arab street — not with diplomats or academics, but with the people themselves.”

With that contact, though, came recognition of what Touboul referred to as “the glass ceiling of the normalization trends,” revealed by the World Cup.

“For the past two years, we’ve found ourselves believing that we’ve succeeded in collapsing all of the walls around the Arab world and in turning on its head the pre-conceived axiom that there won’t be normalization with the Arab world before there is peace with the Palestinians,” said Milstein, who currently heads the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center.

This might be accepted to an extent at the government level, but the notion has not trickled down to the Arab street where Palestine is considered the World Cup’s “33rd team,” even if it is not actually participating.

A fan holds up a ‘Free Palestine’ scarf in the crowd after the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group D football match between Denmark and Tunisia at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on November 22, 2022. (Anne-Christine Poujqoulat/AFP)

Milstein recalled a recent conversation with a Saudi friend who told him that the Arab fans have been referring to this year’s tournament as the Arab World Cup “because it’s not a World Cup of the Arab regimes, it’s the World Cup of the Arab people.”

As opposed to the governments who are engaged in bitter rivalries, the people are supporting one another — support for Morocco spans the entire region, even in adversarial Algeria where civilians took to the streets to celebrate the Atlas Lions’ upset over Spain last week.

And as opposed to the governments who have advanced normalization with Israel, the people are supporting the Palestinians, Milstein explained.

Still, he argued that the influence of this popular support is limited. “As my Saudi friend explained to me, ‘We’re currently living in a dream, but this dream is going to end in a few days, and when it does we’ll once again find ourselves in a world that is full of disputes and struggles for power.”

There are lessons for Israel to learn from the World Cup experience and advancing the far-right policies advocated by some of the next government’s ministers risks upending recent progress, but Milstein contended that much of the pro-Palestinian pushback seen in Doha will likely remain in Doha.

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