ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Analysis'This is soft power on steroids'

Saving truce via surprise trip to Tel Aviv, nimble Qatar flexes diplomatic muscle

Willing to talk to anyone, Doha is uniquely positioned to mediate between Israel and Hamas, even sending officials to bolster the halt in fighting when it appeared to hit a snag

A handout picture released by the official Qatari news agency (QNA) shows Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani (R) meeting with US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk in Doha on November 19, 2023. (Qatar News Agency / AFP)
A handout picture released by the official Qatari news agency (QNA) shows Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani (R) meeting with US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk in Doha on November 19, 2023. (Qatar News Agency / AFP)

AP — The deal seemed on the verge of unraveling. Hamas had accused Israel of failing to keep its side of the bargain — something Jerusalem fiercely denied — and Israel, accusing Hamas of the same, was threatening to resume its bombing campaign on Gaza.

That was the point at which a Qatari jet landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on Saturday. Negotiators aboard set to work, seeking to save the truce deal between Israel and Hamas before it fell apart and scuttled weeks of high-stakes diplomatic wrangling.

The first public visit by Qatari officials to Israel marked an extraordinary moment for the two countries, which have no official diplomatic relations. It also underscored the major role of the tiny emirate in bridging differences between the enemies.

“This is something we’ve never seen before,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said of the Qataris’ visit to Israel. “It’s the only external actor in the world with that much leverage on Hamas, because of its many years of support.”

The weekend mission was successful, and most of the team jetted home. But several Qatari mediators stayed behind to work with Israeli intelligence officials on extending the four-day truce, which ends Tuesday morning, according to a diplomat briefed on the visit who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity.

With close ties to the United States — it hosts the largest American military base between Europe and Japan — a willingness to talk to Israel and support of blockaded Gaza to the tune of what estimates suggest is more than $1 billion since 2014, Qatar is uniquely positioned to break deadlocks in the talks, which also involve the US and Egypt.

Israeli hostages released by Hamas are driven to the Rafah border crossing, November 25, 2023 (Screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“We need Qatar,” Guzansky said of Israel, noting that other Arab countries increasingly have interests in Israel and are normalizing their relations. “Qatar is seen as the only player in the Arab world that is loyal to the Palestinian cause.”

The emirate has hosted an overseas Hamas political office since 2012, allowing Qatar to wield some influence over the terror group’s decision-makers. Top Hamas officials, including the group’s supreme leader, Ismail Haniyeh, live in Qatar, which also enjoys close ties with Tehran.

Qatar says that Hamas’s political office in its capital, Doha, came about at the request of US officials who wanted to establish a communication channel with the terror group, just as Doha had hosted Taliban offices during America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders leading a prayer before hosting an Iftar Ramadan fast-breaking dinner in Qatar with Qatari officials and international diplomats April 13, 2023. (Hamas.ps)

Qatari officials say they are guided by a desire to reduce conflict, though their ties with a range of Islamist groups, including Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Taliban have drawn criticism from Israel, some US lawmakers and neighboring Arab governments.

“This is soft power on steroids, mobilized for America’s interest,” said Patrick Theros, a former US ambassador to Qatar. “Hosting organizations which the United States cannot be seen talking to is part of this policy.”

The wealthy Gulf Arab state with a native population of just 300,000 has leveraged its strategic location and tremendous natural gas riches to wield political influence and project soft power around the world, including as host of the 2022 World Cup.

In the Israel-Hamas hostage negotiations, Qatari mediators, joined by those from Egypt and the US, faced the task of getting the warring sides to put faith in diplomacy when trust was sub-zero.

Qatari Red Crescent officials deliver humanitarian aid, at Al Arish airport, Egypt, on its way to Gaza, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Over the weekend, Hamas claimed that Israel had violated the terms of their truce deal and said the agreement was in danger. Only 137 trucks with badly needed humanitarian aid made it through on Friday, the first day of the truce, and 187 on the second day, according to the UN Palestinian refugee agency. Officials from Israel, which had promised to permit 200 trucks a day, blamed Hamas for the holdup, and said it was upholding all its commitments.

Israel accused Hamas of violating the terms of the deal, including splitting up a mother and daughter held captive.

Qatari officials resorted to face‐to‐face meetings with Israeli officials to try to save the deal, according to the diplomat.

A few hours with Mossad officials in Tel Aviv proved crucial on Saturday. Suddenly, the deal was back on. Hamas handed over a second group of 13 Israeli hostages, women and children, and another 39 Palestinian security prisoners, women and minors, were freed from Israeli prison.

On Sunday, Qatar’s minister of state for international cooperation, Lolwah Al-Khater, used the pause in fighting to become the first foreign official to visit the besieged Gaza Strip. She surveyed the disputed influx of aid, met wounded Palestinians and talked with Wael al-Dahdouh, Gaza bureau chief of Qatari-funded Al Jazeera, who says he lost his wife, son and grandchild in an alleged Israeli airstrike. The pan-Arab broadcaster, which has more cameras in Gaza than any other news outlet, has dominated Arabic coverage of the war.

People hold up posters of the missing as they gather outside the Qatari Embassy in London on October 29, 2023, to demand the release of the estimated 240 hostages held in Gaza. (Justin TALLIS / AFP)

Israel launched its campaign against Hamas after thousands of gunmen from the terror group stormed into Israel, where they killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took another approximately 240 people hostage. Israel has vowed to press the offensive until Hamas is toppled from power, its leadership assassinated and the threat it posed eliminated — and the hostages are returned.

Even as bigger questions mount over what happens after the war, a Qatari official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations says his country remains focused on what’s immediately possible, such as extending the truce and preventing a regional war that draws in Hamas’s Iranian patrons or Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group.

A steady stream of officials have passed through Doha to that end, including Iran’s foreign minister, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister and the director of the CIA.

“There is no conflict that began and ended on the battlefield,” Majed al-Ansari, spokesperson for Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press on Monday. “Now, as hostages are being released and there are pauses in the fighting, we might be able to find a solution.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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