As Qatar’s star rises in the Middle East, Israel looks to temper the emirate’s influence—and that of its television network, Al Jazeera
As the dust starts to settle from the upheavals of the Arab Spring, two clear winners have emerged: Israel and Qatar. The governments in both countries remained the same, and their ability to project influence throughout the region has greatly increased as their traditional rivals have weakened.
Israel’s stable state structure and advanced military have gained significant new advantages over its neighbors in Egypt and Syria simply by standing pat. The Qataris, meanwhile, have become the flagship of revolution through the influence of the television broadcaster Al Jazeera, privately owned by the Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Al Jazeera
helped overthrow Hosni Mubarak, protected the government of Bahrain through its silence regarding the Shia-majority uprising there, and has now turned against its onetime ally Syria. The victory over Libya—won in part with Qatari money and weapons and fighters, in addition to the soft power of Al Jazeera—may have been the crowning touch. Needless to say, Qatar allowed no street demonstrations at home, and somehow pulled off the incredible feat of overthrowing U.S. allies throughout the region with the acquiescence of Americans—while continuing to host U.S. Central Command, the strategic headquarters of the two Middle Eastern campaigns the United States is waging in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, why of all times has Israel chosen now to pick a fight with Qatar, this clearly rising power?
Last week the Israeli daily Maariv relayed a report from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs explaining that Israel is incensed with Qatar and intends to break off relations with the spunky Persian Gulf emirate. Among other complaints Jerusalem has with Doha is its unyielding support of Hamas and efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, like funding lawfare against Israel, including legal actions regarding the Mavi Marmara incident.
It wasn’t always like this between Jerusalem and Doha. Qatari officials are among the few Arab statesmen who have openly met with Israeli leaders, including Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, and Shimon Peres. Israel even opened an interest office in the Qatari capital in 1996 following a visit by then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
But in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008 and 2009, regional pressure mounted on Qatar, which expelled the Israeli delegation from Doha. And so, it is in fact beyond Jerusalem’s ability to break off relations with Qatar—since it was Doha that cashiered the relationship first, more than two years ago. So, why has Israel waited until now to bare its teeth? It’s not like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t have more pressing concerns, like a domestic protest movement, Iran’s nascent nuclear program, and the uncertain future of the 30-year-old peace treaty with Egypt.
As part of its campaign against Qatar, the Maariv report claimed that the Israeli government would no longer allow journalists employed by Al Jazeera, the Qatari emir’s de facto public diplomacy wing, to operate within its precincts. However, the station’s bureau chief is still working from Jerusalem and is in little danger of being chased out of the country. Nonetheless, by shining the spotlight on Al Jazeera, Israel is illuminating the satellite network’s negative influence in the region.
In one of the stolen Wikileaks cables, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan told an American diplomat that Al Jazeera might start the next war in the Middle East. Indeed, during the course of the Arab Spring, a piece of conventional wisdom has emerged: Once Al Jazeera turns its attention to despotic regimes, their days are numbered.
Mainstream Western opinion of Al Jazeera started to turn rosier with the introduction of Al Jazeera English (which Time Warner Cable now offers to its New York City subscribers). Media critics and policymakers remarked on the useful international programming, informed commentary, notable guests, and the appreciably moderate tone of the station. And it’s true that AJE generally avoids the anti-Semitic, anti-American, and anti-Shia invective of Al Jazeera Arabic, but this is only because the entire purpose of AJE is to legitimize the Al Jazeera brand in the West, and therefore legitimize the goals of the emir and his country’s foreign policy, which included toppling regional rivals like Hosni Mubarak.
To be sure, in the end it is the United States that topples Arab rulers: Either Washington turns its firepower on enemies like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi or turns its back on allies like Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and compels them to relinquish their power. And it is Western and not Arab media that shape world opinion, including that of the White House. But beginning with the Egyptian revolution, the U.S. press has been challenged to match AJE and its tireless reporting, story by story. Otherwise, it is hard to see how an event taking place in Tahrir Square, two continents removed from the East Coast, could have come to dominate the news cycle for more than a week. When it did, the Obama Administration had little choice but to call for Mubarak to step down.
The most peculiar effect of the Arab Spring is that the Qataris have managed to leave the Obama Administration with the impression that they have been with the United States every step of the way. Doha, via Al Jazeera, also called for Mubarak and Ben Ali to step down; in Libya and Syria there has seemingly been little daylight between American and Qatari policy; and in Bahrain, the United States and Qatar both kept their mouths shut as a friendly, and strategically vital, Sunni government squashed its Shia opposition. Nonetheless, these coincidences hardly mean that Qatar is on the same side as the United States.
Two years before Doha broke off relations with Israel, Meir Dagan was telling U.S. diplomats that Qatar was a problem. If it seemed that the Qataris were playing both sides and engaging all comers, the reality, according to Dagan, is that the Qatari emir was “annoying everyone” in the region. Qatar had relations with both Hezbollah and its pro-democracy March 14 opponents in Lebanon, it dealt with Hamas and Fatah as well as Israel, and, most provocatively, Qatar hosted CENTCOM even as it shared the world’s largest natural gas field with Iran. Washington, Dagan advised, “should remove [its] bases from [Doha].”
The Maariv report essentially echoes the warning that Dagan relayed. Israel is airing out its differences with Qatar in public, but not because the Qataris themselves are ignorant about the state of relations with Jerusalem. The intended recipient of the message is Washington. Perhaps Jerusalem fears that the Obama Administration sees Doha as a more useful ally at present than Israel, or because the Israelis are concerned that the Americans do not understand that Qatar is not a benevolent actor. It seems that Jerusalem believes this is the one place where it can offer its advice to Washington, however obliquely.
From the American perspective, Qatar is extremely appealing. In the Arab Spring, Doha has picked nothing but winners for the last six months. Moreover, an Arab government with ties to the region’s likely rising powers—especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya, and perhaps Syria—may be a valuable friend as the new regional order begins to take shape. But just because Qatar has dropped the role of middleman and mediator—made evident by its severing of ties with Israel—and is now choosing sides in the region doesn’t mean that it has really opted to side with the United States. From the Israeli perspective, the Americans have been fooled at least once in the last six months, when they misread Egypt as the Qataris, via Al Jazeera, set the tempo and obfuscated the situation. Qatar is also lined up against Israel, which wants to remind the Americans that it is still a U.S. ally—America’s one real friend in the Middle East.
Rafael Halperin—who died last month—was an ordained rabbi, an ambitious businessman, and a middling politician. He was also a professional wrestler.