US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is now clarifying a previous controversial statement denying that Qatar gives financial support for Hamas. According to a December 7th letter to Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon, which Tablet has obtained, Haley is now partially backing off of an October memo to Congress, in which she wrote that Doha “does not fund Hamas” and appeared to draw distinctions between Hamas’s political and military wings that run contrary to decades of US policy towards the group.
Haley, who is perhaps the most admired figure in the Trump administration among the US’s politically diverse pro-Israel community, submitted a written answer to a House Foreign Affairs Committee question in October, stating that “While the Qatari government does not fund Hamas, it does allow Hamas political representatives to be based in Qatar, which Qatar believes limits Iran’s influence and pressure over Hamas.” A bipartisan group of eight congressmen asked Haley to elaborate on her comments in a letter last month, sharing their concern that Haley’s memo “implies the U.S. now recognizes a distinction between Hamas political and military wings and finds Qatar’s relations with and sanctuary for Hamas officials to be legitimate, which would be a change in US policy.”
The congressmen were correct in noting that Haley’s comments didn’t quite mesh with US policy—for instance, in 2014 the Treasury Department concluded that Qatar “has for years openly financed Hamas.” The UN ambassador also raised concerns among pro-Israel Republicans, who proved remarkably willing to criticize a popular member of the Trump administration for equivocating on an issue related to Israel’s security. Breitbart reported on the Congressional letter under the headline “Lawmakers Hit Nikki Haley for Whitewashing Qatar’s Support for Hamas,” while a Republican operative told Tablet that Haley’s statement was proof of the Trump administration “running interference across multiple departments and cabinet secretaries—and that includes Nikki Haley—on behalf of Iran’s most important ally in the world, Qatar.”
The latest letter, however, is a partial retreat. “[T]he US does not—and will not—recognize a difference between the political and military arms of Hamas,” Haley wrote in the December 7th letter. “No element of Hamas, and no person affiliated with Hamas, has any legitimacy in the eyes of the US government.” Haley then went on to explain that she hadn’t intended to announce or even imply a change in the US approach either to Qatar or to Hamas. “With regard to Qatar,” she added, “my written statement to the House Foreign Affairs Committee referred to how Qatari officials see their relationship with Hamas and did not suggest that the United States shared that view.”
Haley’s October letter was surprising partly because she had been on-record accusing Doha of funding Hamas just a few months earlier. The December 7th letter doesn’t repeat that claim or fully retract her language from the October memo, but it does imply that the Qatari government was—or perhaps is—involved in supporting extremist groups. “The very fact that the U.S. pursued a new counter-terrorism Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Qatar indicates that its previous policies were not acceptable, and we expect them to do more to counter terrorism and terrorist finance,” she writes. “[T]he MOU covers actions Qatar can take to improve its counterterrorism efforts against all terrorist groups, including Hamas.”
In the most recent letter’s second-to-last paragraph, Haley lists a number of Qatari commitments under that MOU, which the US reached with Doha this past June. “While progress is encouraging, we must demand more,” Haley writes. “No country, including Qatar, should be allowed to support any terrorist entity without consequences.”
When Buzzfeed broke the news of Haley’s initial statement in October, observers concluded that the UN ambassador’s claims came at the behest of Rex Tillerson’s state department. Tillerson had been attempting to mediate the ongoing dispute between Qatar and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf. In June, several of the Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cut off diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar over its government’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is ideologically committed to abolishing the Gulf’s monarchical regimes. Explicit accusations of terror financing from high-ranking American diplomats, like Haley’s statement this past June that the US should tell Qatar to “quit funding Hamas,” could have been seen as threatening the US’s role as an honest broker between the sides, while possibly alienating a government that still hosts a major American military base and is viewed as a key counter-terror ally.
Still, whatever its underlying reasons, Haley’s statement apparently warranted some kind of clarification in light of the political and policy stakes. “Making sure there’s some pushback and some accountability,” Rich Goldberg, a Republican foreign policy strategist and former senior senate aid, told Tablet last month, “giving her a chance to clarify and reverse what was written for her by the State Department, is probably a good idea.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.