A game changer may be quietly emerging in the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, even as the Mid-East region gets less attention in the US and was almost absent from the Presidential debates. The ruler of Qatar, a close American ally that houses the region’s largest US military bases, advanced the first pawn with Tuesday’s unexpected overture to the ostracized Hamas in the Gaza strip.
Mutual fatigue seems to have descended upon the byzantine relationship between America and its protégés and enemies in the Middle East. In the US, domestic issues have engulfed the final straight to November 6 while Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestinians seem to be listening less to Washington.
Qatar is trying to be the game changer in this power vacuum by becoming a diplomatic bridge to the dangerous, isolated and Islamist Hamas. America and Britain consider Hamas a terrorist group, as does Israel, because it refuses to recognize Israel or renounce armed struggle. The UN secretary general and European ministers also avoid all contact with Hamas during visits to Gaza.
A surprised Washington tried to bill the Qatari visit as humanitarian because Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani offered a $400 million aid package for new roads, housing and infrastructure. But Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called it a victory. “Today we demolish the wall of the blockade through this visit, thank you Qatar,” he exulted, referring to Israel’s tight control over all imports.
In a rare moment of agreement, both Israel and the PLA criticized the visit, saying it could harm efforts to end the internal Palestinian conflict between Fatah and Hamas. A top PLA peace negotiator, Hanan Ashrawi said Hamas might use the visit to separate Gaza from the West Bank. This fear has grown during President Barack Obama’s first term because of the growing opinion that despite Washington’s awesome military power, it exercises little influence over internal politics in the Mid-East, including on Israel’s wily Benyamin Netanyahu.
Despite being a tiny and despotic sheikhdom, ambitious Qatar can afford to be a maverick because it has immense oil and gas wealth spread over less than two million people. Qataris have the world’s highest per capital income at about $90,000, expected to reach $114,000 at the end of 2013. It also has Al Jazeera, which many viewers in the Middle East and Asia favor over CNN and the BBC. Although oil and gas provide half of Qatar’s GDP and 70 percent of earnings, it is diversifying rapidly and has better potential than Saudi Arabia to become a successful non-oil economy. Its strengths include dynamic immigrants from India, Pakistan, Asia and Europe who make up nearly 60 percent of the population.
Qatar’s go-it-alone attitude also reflects its feeling of being caged in by the region’s many perilous conflicts. It is a stone’s throw from Iran and may be among the first to suffer if the US and Israel decide to drop bombs there. The key threat to the al-Thani dynasty, which has ruled for over 150 years, comes from al-Qaeda style Sunni Islam on the one hand and the minority Shia sympathizers of Iran on the other.
Therefore, despite Washington’s puzzlement and displeasure, it is moving forward quickly to build bridges to Islam inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the major political force in Egypt and the ideological driver of Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood, though distrusted in Washington, is more moderate than the jihadists and others inspired by Salafist and Wahhabi Islam, many of whom want to establish a medieval Islamic Caliphate.
Qatar and other Gulf states have long believed that the Israel-Palestine conflict is at the core of most instability in the region, including threats to their Sheikhdoms. Now they fear that the Sunni-Shia wars might spread and weaken their grip over their own Emirates. That could happen if Syria sinks into a long war of attrition because of interference from al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, causing the fragile balance in Lebanon among Christians, Shia and Sunnis to break down into a new civil war. They also fear that both Israel and Fatah may give up on the peace process partly because of American preoccupation with domestic issues and continued resistance by Hamas.