Qatar’s foray into Gaza politics: Bad for Iran, good for Israel?

The Emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, right, meets with Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. (Ali Ali/Associated Press)

The monarch of oil-rich Arab gulf nation Qatar, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, this week became the first foreign head of state to visit Gaza's militant Islamist rulers since they won power over the Palestinian territory in 2007. The emir, who has long deployed Qatar's astounding energy wealth toward outsized international influence, also handed over $400 million in Gazan reconstruction aid. Hamas, long seen as an ally of Iran, opposes Israel, sometimes violently. 

Nothing dashes hopes and humbles would-be peacemakers quite like the Israel-Palestine peace process, so there's little reason to think that al-Thani will succeed where more experienced statesmen have failed. Still, there is some reason to think that Qatar's outreach to Hamas could do some good for a part of the world that badly needs it. Here's what some Middle East analysts are saying about it.

Pro-Western Qatar could undermine Iran's often-nefarious influence in the region, analyst David B. Roberts argues at Foreign Policy. "While Israel and the Palestinian Authority may view Qatar's embrace of Hamas with chagrin, it is Iran that is the central loser in this drama. The emir's visit is part of a larger Qatari policy to unseat and reorient crucial Iranian allies around the Middle East — and by extension, amputate a long-used, effective limb of Iranian foreign policy," he writes. This is a bit surprising, since Qatar has long maintained friendly relations with Iran, its much more powerful northern neighbor. He adds, "The fact that Qatar is overturning one of the key tenets of its foreign policy by antagonizing Iran is a surprising and forthright move by the Qatari elite, which clearly does not accept conventional limits on what is and what is not possible in the Middle East."

A Reuters analysis suggests that Qatar could help soothe divisions between Hamas and another major Palestinian political group, Fatah: "Analysts think Qatar, building up a leader's role in the Sunni Muslim world and influence beyond the Gulf, hopes to tame Hamas, get it to reconcile with the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and perhaps advance the cause of Middle East peace." It's a long way from Palestinian unity to Middle East peace, but the former would still be a step in the direction of the latter, in part by making negotiations easier for Israel.

That may explain why some analysts believe Israel and the United States gave Qatar the go-ahead for this trip, as Israel-Palestine watcher Hamadi El-Aouni told Deutsche Welle. Their goal seems to be to "re-orient" Palestinian groups away from supporters Iran and Syria and help them establish "new partners in the western-oriented and Sunni Middle Eastern countries," the paper explains, such as Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and yes, Qatar. As Syria burns and Iran struggles under sanctions, these stabler and richer Sunni states — though at times perceived as too close to the U.S. or even to Israel — could be attractive allies for Hamas. Cash-strapped Palestinian groups such as Hamas must prove to Palestinians that they can provide for them, which costs money.

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