Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Cyprus two months ago, an Israeli report said Wednesday, amid efforts to hammer out a ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.
The Walla news site said the plane used by al-Thani during his international diplomatic tour in Europe and the United States had made a secret flight from Italy to Cyprus on June 23, while Liberman was in the island nation where he held talks with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts and with Cyprus’s president.
A day later, the plane — belonging to the VIP airline Qatar Amiri Flight — left Larnaca airport and traveled to the United States via Ireland, according to the report.
Earlier this month, Channel 10 reported that Liberman had met secretly with Qatar’s envoy to Gaza Mohammed al-Emadi in Cyprus to discuss the Palestinian enclave’s humanitarian crisis and the return of captive Israeli civilians and remains of fallen soldiers held by Hamas.
But Walla quoted a senior Israeli official as saying a meeting with al-Emadi would not have had to take place in Cyprus as the Qatari envoy is frequently in Israel. However, a rare sit-down with a high-ranking official like al-Thani required Liberman to travel abroad.
Israel and Qatar do not have diplomatic ties, though the Jewish state in recent years has hinted at high-level talks with moderate Arab states.
The meeting may have been kept under wraps because Israel has publicly rejected Qatari mediation between Jerusalem and Hamas, preferring the Egyptian channel. Egypt has joined Israel in maintaining the blockade on the Hamas-ruled Strip since at least 2014, and seeks to expand its influence over the territory, despite the efforts of Hamas-backers such as Qatar and Turkey to intervene on the terror group’s behalf.
Nonetheless, both the US and Israel have sought to keep Qatar involved in the process, in part as a key funder of any future humanitarian projects that emerge from agreements with Hamas. Qatar is all but alone among wealthy Arab states willing to pour humanitarian funding into Gaza. Many others, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, fear their funds would only serve to strengthen Hamas’s rule in Gaza and influence over Palestinian politics.
Liberman’s office responded by saying it “doesn’t comment on the minister’s meetings.”
The meeting reportedly took place on the sidelines of talks the defense minister was holding in Cyprus regarding the possibility of constructing a seaport in Cyprus for Gaza in addition to a possible long-term truce between Israel and Hamas.
Liberman pitched the idea of setting up a floating dock for Palestinian sea traffic in Cyprus when he met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in June, Hadashot news reported at the time. The plan was conditional on the return of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers held by Hamas, the television report said.
Last week’s Channel 10 report said that al-Emadi had offered unspecified Qatari proposals for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, as well as solutions to the question of the Israeli captives. He also pledged some $350 million to humanitarian projects in Gaza as part of any deal.
Last Thursday, a Lebanese-based TV channel reported that the long-term deal taking shape will last for a year and see the establishment of a cargo shipping connection between Gaza and Cyprus. Israel will have security control over the sea traffic between the Palestinian coastal enclave and Cyprus, according to the report from the al-Mayadeen television channel, which cited sources familiar with the details.
Hamas has long made access to a seaport a key strategic goal. Under the conditions of Israel’s naval blockade, goods heading to Gaza are currently shipped to Israeli ports and then trucked into Gaza.
Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized the territory from the PA in 2007. It says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip. Hamas has fought three wars with Israel in the last decade.
Egypt, too, has kept its Gaza border crossing largely closed during years of sour relations with the Islamist terror group.
Sources told al-Mayadeen that the forthcoming deal will include Qatari funding for Gaza’s electricity bills in cooperation with Israel, and Qatari payment of civil service employees’ salaries in Gaza in cooperation with Egypt. Gaza has limited electricity supplies and civil servants have not been paid for months due to a spat between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
Along with halting the recent fighting, the Egypt-brokered plan supposedly includes humanitarian projects for Gaza, and future indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas for the exchange of prisoners, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported.