FOREIGN POLICY — The person who may hold the key to the devastating hostage crisis is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, but rather the young and taciturn ruler of Qatar.
Since taking power 10 years ago, the 43-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has been hellbent on positioning his tiny country — one of the world’s richest, with the third-largest gas reserves and sixth-highest per-capita income — as a player in global geopolitics. He has mostly failed to achieve the stature he craves, even after hosting the soccer World Cup and solicitous European officials cut off from their once-reliable Russian gas supplies.
The war between Israel and Hamas — a group indebted to Qatar — which began after Hamas and other Gaza terrorists massacred 1,400 people in southwest Israel on October 7, has handed Thani an opportunity to attain a profile higher than any other Arab leader in a long time. He is in a potentially unique position to help extract the more than 240 hostages — of all ages, from very young to very elderly; mostly Israelis, but many of foreign nationality — that Hamas and Islamic Jihad abducted to Gaza that day.
Unlike his neighbors in the region, he isn’t worried about an uprising or a challenge to his rule from political Islamists. Instead, he hosts Islamist terror groups, including Hamas, alongside a trade office for Israel and thousands of American troops at the Al Udeid Air Base, from which the United States routinely carries out operations in the region.
There is no doubt that Thani’s sympathies lie with the Palestinians. His foreign ministry “solely” blamed Israel for Hamas’s slaughter and has not once condemned the atrocities the terrorists carried out.
And yet Doha’s sway over Hamas might be the only hope for families desperate for a reunion with their abducted sons, daughters, grandparents, and other loved ones.
In 2012, as war raged in Syria and Hamas’s leadership opposed the Syrian government, Doha provided it with shelter. Qataris said the decision was taken in coordination with the United States and with the blessing of then-US president Barack Obama. Hamas owes Qatar not just for offering refuge to its leaders and providing a base to plan and parley with its Iranian patrons, but also for millions of dollars in annual foreign aid, which helps the poor in Gaza, pays for electricity —and also bankrolls Hamas’s bureaucracy, terror infrastructure, rockets and other weaponry.
Thus far, Qatar has managed to convince Hamas to release four captives, all women. “We remain hopeful with regard to the hostage situation,” Majed Al Ansari, the official spokesperson for Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, told Foreign Policy. “There has been some progress and breakthroughs on the negotiations, especially if we compare where we started with where we are right now.”
“It’s moving slower than we expected,” the official said. “The bombing of the hospital delayed negotiations,” he added, in reference to the explosion at al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on October 17 that Hamas falsely blamed on Israel. (Israel produced evidence showing the blast was caused by an Islamic Jihad rocket misfire. The United States, also citing its own data, endorsed the Israeli account.)
Israel and many of its Western allies believe that Thani exercises far more leverage on Hamas than he is probably letting on. He could, arguably, apply more pressure on its leaders to free the hostages.
“The international community should call on Qatar, which finances Hamas, to enable the immediate release of the hostages held by the terrorists,” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said at a United Nations Security Council meeting on October 24.
“We know that Qatar can exercise influence over Hamas, and we have no reason to believe it won’t do it,” Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for the external affairs of the EU, told FP at his office in Brussels.
The official aware of the ongoing negotiations said Hamas is asking Israel to stop bombing so it can gather the more than 240 captives scattered around Gaza — some in the custody of Islamic Jihad, and some said to be holed up in residential areas by Palestinian civilians.
Qataris are concerned that if Israel maintains its declared campaign to destroy Hamas’s military and governmental capacity, and Hamas feels it is nearing its demise, negotiations might collapse. A rising death toll in Gaza and the fear that hostages may die has also led to increased calls for humanitarian “pauses.” The EU has called for them, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said pauses must be considered to protect civilian lives, but the US is firmly backing Israel’s refusal to halt its campaign, and US President Joe Biden has said that Hamas should be entirely eliminated.
Behind the scenes, Qatar is competing with others in the region also keen to appear to prove their relevance to the West.
Turkey has offered to arbitrate — if asked by both parties. It has some sway over Hamas, whose leaders have also sought refuge in Turkey. But despite Islamist camaraderie between Hamas and the Turkish president, and President Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated denunciations of Israel since October 7, Arabs may still prefer an Arab leader to play the lead. Doha and Ankara are allies and have said they are coordinating.
Oman has been a reliable and relatively neutral partner for the West when it comes to dealing with Iran, since it helped build the foundation a decade ago for direct talks between American and Iranian officials that culminated in the US-Iran nuclear deal. But it does not have direct influence over Hamas.
Qatar faces the stiffest challenge for the role of would-be mediator from Egypt, which also played a role in the release of two Israeli hostages and has mediated several ceasefires between Israel and Hamas in previous conflicts.
“Always during the previous military actions between Israel and Hamas, always Egypt played the role of a mediator,’’ Emad Gad, an Egyptian politician and political analyst, told FP over the phone from Cairo. Gad said there is no doubt that, “indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas will happen in Egypt.’’
Sultan Barakat, a professor at the Qatar Foundation’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, wrote in a 2014 academic paper that Qatar’s diplomacy in regional conflicts has traditionally been more successful in defusing short-term crises than providing long-term solutions to conflicts. But now, he believes, Qatar stands a better chance than Egypt in not just mediating the release of hostages but also an enduring ceasefire.
“Israel wants to push millions of Palestinians in the Sinai. Egypt can’t mediate if it is also at the receiving end of the conflict,” Barakat said over the phone from Doha. (A non-binding Israeli ministerial document proposes transferring Gazans to Sinai, but has been downplayed by Israel and is not official policy.)
Several EU governments have prominently reached out to Qatar, rather than Egypt, in hopes of freeing their citizens held hostage.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, has lost some credibility as a mediator with Palestinians, as it had apparently channeled most of its diplomatic energy in the run-up to this war on normalizing ties with Israel. Iran, meanwhile, is despised by most Arabs, and those who signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020 have disqualified themselves as arbiters.
Qatar, a tiny nation with massive riches, however, has steadily maneuvered itself into a position where it can talk to Israel with the Palestinians’ benefits in mind. Tellingly, Mossad chief David Barnea reportedly paid a visit to Qatar over the weekend to take part in discussions about the potential for a deal to release hostages.
Thani is young and very rich, and his one clear goal is to acquire a long-lasting legacy. He has a shot now, if he can save the hostages by mediating terms acceptable to the warring sides. That might decide the future role Qatar plays in resolving the world’s most intractable conflict.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this article.
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