Even with Israel, old amity is eroding
Israel has joined the coordinated and tight blockade of Qatar, taking sides with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf that have accused Doha of being pro-Iranian and of backing the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian branch Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist organisation.
The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was considering closing Al Jazeera’s television bureau in Jerusalem. In doing so, he would be echoing recent actions by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt.
Since it first aired in the mid- 1990s, Al Jazeera has been very critical of Israel, especially during the second intifada and the 2001- 04 siege of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. During its live coverage of Arafat’s illness and death at a Paris hospital in November 2004, the Qatari station hinted at Tel Aviv complicity in killing the former chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, then said it bluntly in a 2013 documentary.
For more than two decades, Al Jazeera has reported extensively on Israeli affairs, accusing the Jewish state of committing atrocities against Palestinians. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has compared Al Jazeera to the propaganda apparatus of Nazi Germany, saying: “Al Jazeera is not media. It’s an incitement machine. It is pure propaganda of the worst variety, in the style of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.”
The Iranians, of course, are milking the story to death, accusing Saudi Arabia of cooperating with Israel in the “slaughter” of Qatar.
After wrapping up a recent visit to Riyadh, US President Donald Trump headed to Israel, reportedly carrying a message of goodwill from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Netanyahu, also making the first direct flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.
In January 2016, Netanyahu told CNN that Israel and Saudi Arabia had become “allies” because of their common enmity for Iran. Israeli historian and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Oren recently tweeted: “New line drawn in the Middle Eastern sands; no longer Israel against Arabs but Israel and Arabs against Qatar-financed terror.”
Chagai Tzuriel of the Israeli Intelligence Ministry recently told the Times of Israel that Qatar was a “pain in the ass” to Arab countries and former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon added: “The Sunni Arab countries, apart from Qatar, are largely in the same boat with us since we all see nuclear Iran as the number one threat against all of us.”
The Israeli position has taken Qatar by surprise. Doha was expecting silence and neutrality. The two countries have historically maintained cordial relations, after all, with former Israeli leader Shimon Peres travelling to Doha twice. The first time was in 1996 when, as deputy prime minister, he inaugurated Israel’s trade mission to Qatar. He went again in early 2007, before becoming Israeli president, to appear on the popular Al Jazeera show “Doha Debates.”
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visited Doha in 2008, meeting with Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the father of the current emir. In January 2008, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak met with former Qatari Prime Minister Abdullah bin Khalifa al-Thani at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
Qatar unilaterally closed the Israeli Trade Mission in Doha in 2000, during the highest violence of the second intifada. Ten years later, it twice offered to restore relations but only if Israel allowed it to send construction material to besieged Gaza and if Israeli leaders made a public statement expressing appreciation for Qatar’s role — two concessions Israel refused to make.
Despite that, low-profile trade links remained open between Tel Aviv and Doha, which the Qataris hoped to tap into now, as all Gulf markets have been sealed off by the Saudi blockade.
When it was announced that Doha would host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatari officials said Israeli athletes would be allowed to participate “if they qualified.” A stadium was named after Doha in the Israeli Arab city of Sakhnin in the Galilee, established by the Qatar National Olympic Committee.
In 2013, Qatar helped transport a group of 60 Yemeni Jews to Israel, at the request of the Israeli government, giving them a connecting flight in Doha. In 2015, the Qataris hosted talks between Israel and Hamas in Doha, aimed at reaching a ceasefire.
Israel was always a reserve friend for Qatar — a country that it could always use, when needed, to trigger conflict in the Middle East or to mediate with on behalf of non-state players such as Hamas and Hezbollah. When it appealed to the Israelis, Doha knew that top officials would listen, thanks to its coffers that were gushing with gas money.
Ideally, a friendship with Israel could have come into tremendous use in today’s conflict with the Gulf but, to the surprise of Sheikh Hamad, that door is slowly being shut by Tel Aviv, which seemingly sees more of a bad brand name than a potential ally in the Gulf region.