Qatar's mediation efforts in Israel-Hamas war come under fire

RAFAH, GAZA - DECEMBER 01: Smoke rises from buildings due to Israeli airstrikes after the humanitarian pause ended on December 01, 2023 in Rafah, Gaza. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Smoke rises from buildings hit by an Israeli airstrike in December in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. (Anadolu via Getty Images)

When U.S. officials needed to negotiate with the Taliban to bring an end to the Afghanistan war, they turned to Qatar.

With Russia continuing its campaign in Ukraine, Qatar has become the main facilitator for what little communication there is between the two sides.

In past years, this tiny desert nation has captured outsize attention largely because of the splashy real estate projects it bankrolls with proceeds from the world’s largest gas field. It’s also home to one of the United States’ most strategically important military air bases in the Middle East.

But increasingly during the last six months of the war in the Gaza Strip, Qatar’s role as a mediator has come under scrutiny.

Doha has had limited success forging an agreement to stop the fighting and release Israeli hostages, spurring a rush of criticism from U.S. lawmakers and Israeli officials.

A new round of Gaza cease-fire negotiations that began over the weekend had Egypt instead of Qatar in the leading role.

Qatar says it’s reassessing its role. Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari said during a recent visit to Israel that the Qataris expected “more commitment and more seriousness” in negotiations from both sides.

In a phone call Monday to Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, President Biden said both Egypt and Qatar would work to ensure “full implementation” of any agreement between Hamas and Israel, according to a White House readout.

Biden also urged the Qatari ruler to “exert all efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas as this is now the only obstacle to an immediate cease-fire and relief for the people of Gaza,” while thanking the emir and his team “for their tireless efforts to secure the release of all hostages.”

Hamas’ negotiating team left Cairo on Monday, according to state-owned Egyptian station Al Qahera News, which quoted what it described as a high-level Egyptian source who said that the Hamas team would return at an undisclosed time with a written response to the proposals.

That comes as pressure builds from some sectors of Congress that object to the continued presence of Hamas headquarters in Qatar. Several GOP and Democratic lawmakers have told Qatar that if Hamas continues to refuse deals offered by mediators, the group does not deserve safe harbor in the Qatari capital.

“Qatar’s harboring and support have led Hamas to believe that it can kill and kidnap Americans with impunity,” said Republican Sens. Ted Budd of North Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa. “This must end now. We urge the Biden administration to demand that Qatar expel Hamas from Doha immediately.”

Failure to do so, they said in a letter, would prompt them to demand Qatar be “held accountable.”

They echoed an earlier statement from Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who head the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Cardin and Risch similarly urged Qatar to eject Hamas if the militant group continued to refuse to accept a deal.

Israeli officials also accuse Qatar of being a problematic interlocutor, despite its central role in negotiating a temporary truce in November that led to the release of detainees on both sides.

“Qatar is giving safe haven to Hamas leaders, funding trillions of dollars, buying their ideology in the United States, buying their way all over the world,” Israel’s economy minister, Nir Barkat, said in a recent interview with Bloomberg TV.

At the behest of the Obama administration and Israel in 2012, Qatar agreed to accept Hamas offices in Doha. In 2018, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s blessing, Qatar started providing monthly payments in the tens of millions of dollars to Hamas for the day-to-day running of the Gaza Strip, including public sector salaries.

Doha has also taken the lead in other thorny conflicts, hosting negotiations with the Taliban that led to an agreement culminating in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Because of that role, the Biden administration designated the Persian Gulf emirate as a major non-NATO ally.

“From Qatar’s perspective, they are the only ones who have been able to bring any hostages home,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. He was referring to the release negotiated in November of more than 100 hostages seized by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in exchange for several hundred Palestinians being held in Israeli jails.

But, Elgindy said, the “political optics” for Netanyahu, if he has to rely too much on Qatar, could be negative in Israel. Egypt, the first Arab state to have a peace treaty with Israel, could be a more palatable intermediary, he added.

Egyptian commentators criticize Qatar’s close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which Cairo has long sought to root out at home. They argue that Doha’s pro-Hamas stance has increased the militant group’s intransigence. In a recent interview with Sky News Arabia, Ashraf Abu Al-Hol, editor of the mostly state-owned Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, said Qatari media’s glorification of Hamas’ exploits on the battlefield in Gaza is “making the military leadership of Hamas stubborn in its positions.”

Biden administration officials say they continue to regard Qatar as a valuable partner in negotiations, including the most urgent current talks over a Gaza cease-fire and release of hostages. But they have also warned Doha and others that more restrictions on dealing with Hamas may be coming, especially if countries don’t put pressure on Hamas.

“It no longer can be business as usual with Hamas, and ... any country who may have a relationship with Hamas, influence with Hamas, needs to send a very clear message,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said last week.

The central question, said Salman Shaikh, founder of the peace-building organization the Shaikh Group and former director of the Brooking Institution’s Doha Center, is whether a party could give sanctuary or support to one side and still act as a mediator.

“By that logic, can the U.S. ever be an effective mediator when it comes to the Middle East?” he asked, referring to Washington’s financial and political support for Israel.

“Mediation is a key part of Qatar’s foreign policy. Do we want them to act as a player or a mediator and facilitator? They’ve proved to be more effective than anyone else, at least initially,” Shaikh said.

Other observers say that whether Egypt or Qatar lead the talks is irrelevant.

“The bigger issue is the fundamental divide between Israel and Hamas. They just don’t agree on terms,” said Michael Hanna, the U.S. director of the International Crisis Group, which focuses on conflict prevention.

“And that’s not going to change, whether Qatar is involved or not, or whether Egypt is playing a more central role as the primary interlocutor between the international community and Hamas.”

Bulos reported from Doha and Wilkinson from Washington.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.