Despite his claims, unlikely Liberman convinced Qatar to boot Hamas head
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Despite his claims, unlikely Liberman convinced Qatar to boot Hamas head

Israel has almost no clout with Doha, and the FM saying he prodded the emirate’s crackdown on Islamists could actually sabotage the whole thing

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, shakes hands with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, right, as the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, center, looks on, after signing an agreement in Doha, Qatar, Monday, February 6, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Osama Faisal)
Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, shakes hands with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, right, as the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, center, looks on, after signing an agreement in Doha, Qatar, Monday, February 6, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Osama Faisal)

One week ago, the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued an extremely bizarre statement, taking credit for the reported deportation of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal from Qatar.

The statement received almost no attention, quickly buried by the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, which occurred a few hours later.

But not only does the statement appear to be wrong, the mere fact that it was published might have worked against Israeli interests — and actually caused the exact opposite outcome of what it was meant to praise, according to several experts.

In the statement, sent out Tuesday afternoon by ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon, Israel and its Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman took credit for prodding Qatar into expelling Mashaal and sending him to Turkey.

“The Foreign Ministry welcomes Qatar’s decision to expel the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, to Turkey,” Nahshon wrote. “Last year, the Foreign Ministry, led by minister Avigdor Liberman, has advanced various moves to cause Qatar to carry out this step and stop aiding Hamas, directly and indirectly. To this end, minister Liberman and the ministry’s professional staff have acted in overt and covert channels with Qatar itself and other states. We expect the Turkish government to now follow suit.”

Several things are odd about this statement. First of all, the facts. Both Hamas and Qatar denied that Mashaal has been or was about to be deported from the tiny but wealthy gulf nation.

As of this writing, all reports point to Mashaal still residing in Qatar, where he has been living in Qatar since 2012, when he left Damascus in the wake of the Syrian civil war.

More strikingly, however, is the claim that Israel is behind Mashaal’s ostensible expulsion.

The professed involvement of the Jewish state’s foreign minister alone raises eyebrows, especially since just half a year ago he threatened to shut down the Israel offices of Al-Jazeera, Qatar’s state-owned media empire.

Not only does Israel not have diplomatic ties with Qatar (Jerusalem’s interest office in Doha was closed in 2009 after eight years), the Israeli government has also been badmouthing Qatar intensely in recent months due to its support for Hamas.

In July, at the height of Operation Protective Edge, then-president Shimon Peres accused Doha of becoming “the world’s largest funder of terror.”

Then-communications minister Gilad Erdan requested of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council to stop broadcasting Al-Jazeera due to its “extremely severe incitement against the State of Israel as well as enthusiastic support for Hamas and its terrorist actions.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admonished Qatar for aiding terrorist groups.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 4, 2014 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
FM Avigdor Liberman at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 4, 2014 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Given this, former officials and experts have cast doubt on whether Israel would be able to pull any strings in Qatar.

“Even when Israel had an official diplomatic representation in Qatar, we never had anything resembling that clout,” said a former senior Foreign Ministry official intimately involved in Israel’s contacts with the Arab world. “It was very frustrating because we couldn’t even get them to get much smaller, insignificant moves. And do you really think Israel could influence Qatar do something like that?”

Israel does covertly cooperate with some Gulf states, but usually such ties are kept secret, said Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “For political reasons, Israel politicians sometimes like to discuss them to show their influence,” he said.

Qatar indeed appears to turning the screw on Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, its ideological parent movement, but the moving force behind this is pressure from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Teitelbaum said.

“Israel may have played a minor role in this, but not one as significant as the Foreign Ministry statement would suggest. That statement was a huge exaggeration to say the least,” he said.

In their opposition to radical Islamism, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are on the same page, and it’s possible that Jerusalem could have worked with Riyadh and Cairo to persuade Doha to give Mashaal the boot, Teitelbaum allowed. Israel’s role in this assumed process, however, should not be overestimated — probably “less than one percent” of Qatar’s decision had to do with Israel, he estimated.

Either way, the Foreign Ministry’s statement was strange and ill-advised, he said. “One cannot help but think that it was influenced by the upcoming elections.”

‘Why did they open their mouths, this is causing Israel harm. Even if you did have something do to with it, it’s better to keep quiet’

Israel’s decision to boast with having brought Qatar to expel Mashaal was “unwise,” agreed Yoel Guzansky, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, but probably also counterproductive. If Doha had indeed planned such a move, Israel’s taking credit for it might have actually led the Gulf state to cancel or postpone it, he reasoned.

“Why did they open their mouths, this is causing Israel harm. Even if you did have something do to with it, it’s better to keep quiet.”

“The Israeli statement was premature and possibly even entirely baseless,” continued Guzansky, a former official in the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office. “It also embarrasses Israel: for an entire year the entire government didn’t stop telling us how awful Qatar is, that’s it basically the devil, and now they’re taking pride in entertaining open and secret channels with the country?”

Jerusalem doesn’t have nearly enough influence in Qatar to get the country to shun its erstwhile allies, Guzansky asserted. “With all due respect to Israel, if there was any change in Doha’s policy vis-à-vis Hamas — and it’s not at all clear that there was — it’s not because of Israel. There are bigger forces around.”

Qatar likes to present itself as helping Gazans, and while Egypt does not allow Doha to bring in humanitarian aid to the strip, Jerusalem occasionally does, he said. “That’s the only leverage Israel has over Qatar — and it’s doubtful that that was enough to get them to throw Mashaal out.”

‘Liberman is an anathema to Arabs; he used to take pride in this’

Despite Liberman’s reputation as a hawk, experts said it is possible the foreign minister could be fostering contacts with the Arab world, including Qatar.

Liberman is rumored to have met recently with a senior Arab government official in Paris to advance a new diplomatic initiative. Officials in his Yisrael Beytenu party refused to reveal the reason for the reported trip or even confirm it, but sources close to Liberman said at the time that a new initiative might be in the offing.

Arab leaders in the Gulf are pragmatic and “would meet with everyone whom they think could move their interest forward — even Israelis,” Teitelbaum, the BESA scholar, said. “Liberman would have every reason to reach Arab leaders, and he’s able to with his contacts. He is moving to the center, politically, and has been on the record that he met with Arab leaders.”

The Qataris and Liberman are political pragmatists, several experts said, and thus it was indeed quite possible that Israel’s foreign minister sat with a senior official from Doha — or someone close to a senior official — and discussed regional issues.

But according to a senior source who was deeply involved in Israel’s diplomatic contacts with the Arab world, it is highly doubtful that Liberman received any meaningful face time with a high-ranking Qatari official.

“He is an anathema to Arabs, and he used to take pride in this,” the source said. In the Arab world, Israel’s foreign minister is known for saying Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell” and for advocating paying Palestinians to leave Israel, the source added. Even today, despite his ostensible turn toward the center, “he keeps on talking in a way completely unacceptable to Arabs. I don’t believe Liberman ever met with any meaningful official in any Arab country.”

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