Qatar’s two-faced policy towards Israel was on display this week, as Doha hosted a competition of FINA, the international governing body of swimming and other water sports.
Members of Israel’s national team were granted visas to the Gulf monarchy where Israeli passports are normally rejected, and there were no boycotts of competitions against Israelis. But the Qatari television that broadcasted the event worldwide, did not present Israel’s flag on screen, instead opting for a white rectangle every time Israeli swimmers competed. Israeli news website Ynet’s showed a screen shot of the bizarre political statement.
The incident reflects Qatar’s policy towards Middle East politics, which is best characterized as an ongoing balancing act, especially when it comes to the delicate region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1996, Qatar became one of the first Arab countries to establish trade relations with Israel, but the alliance ended when as a response to the 2008-09 Gaza war – in which Israel’s military killed over 1200 Palestinians — the Qataris shut down the Israeli trade office in Doha and expelled all Israeli representatives. Recently, Qatar suggested a renewal of diplomatic ties, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government rejected the offer.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s on-and-off ties with Israel have not stopped it from being a friend and a financial supporter of Hezbollah and of Hamas — whose head, Khaled Meshaal, is currently based in Doha. Further emphasizing its contradictory alliances, Qatar is home to the largest American military base in the Middle East but also provides safe haven to hardline Islamists from all over the Arab world.
So why should we even care about the foreign policies of a peninsula half the size of New Jersey, that is located over a 1000 miles away from Israel and seems to be eager to please all sides?
Because the carbon-rich Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has been using its money to do much more than just build shiny skyscrapers in the middle of the desert. By cultivating broad relations with all main Middle East stakeholders, Qatar — a country with a population of less than two million people – has become an influential regional player.
Secretary of State John Kerry, just spent an entire press conference yesterday praising Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah for being one of the main forces behind the Arab Peace Initiative. Kerry also thanked Qatar for its decision to provide $150 million in much-needed debt relief to the Palestinian Authority.
It is not the Qataris seemingly endless money flow that makes them important. It is their stance as a major player that is on nobody’s side. Last year, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Qatari Emir, was the first head of state to visit Gaza since 1999, meeting Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and launching a humanitarian reconstruction project valued at $250 million. As the Kerry-led peace talks continue, Qatar could play the critical role of bridging between Hamas and Fatah, an essential step on the path to a sustainable long-term solution between Palestine and Israel.
Find Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner