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Updated Jan 24, 2024, 9:15pm EST
security

Netanyahu, Qatar feud goes public

REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/Pool/File Photo
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The News

A public feud between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahyu and the government of Qatar could throw a wrench into international efforts to end the war in the Gaza Strip and free around 130 hostages still being held there by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ political leadership in Doha, has been leading mediation efforts between the Palestinians and Israel, in close consultation with the Biden administration, since Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack on southern Israel. This diplomacy allowed Qatar to successfully broker the release of 100 hostages in November, including a number of Americans.

But talks for the remaining hostages have stalled in recent weeks, fueling criticism in Israel and the U.S. that Qatar’s monarchy wasn’t doing enough to use its financial and diplomatic leverage over Hamas. Qatar, in addition to providing Hamas diplomatic backing, is also among the organization’s largest funders inside Gaza.

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Netanyahu, in leaked remarks made to some of the hostages’ families this week, blasted Qatar’s mediation efforts and questioned why the Biden administration has become so reliant on Doha. “When I talk about Qatar, you don’t hear me thank Qatar, why?” Netanyahu said, according to a recording. “Because Qatar, as far as I’m concerned, is not significantly different from the U.N., is not significantly different from the Red Cross, and to some extent is even more problematic.”

The Israeli leader then criticized the Biden administration for extending the lease this month of a major U.S. military base in Qatar, called Al Udeid Air Base, before securing the release of all the remaining hostages. “Qatar has leverage on Hamas,” Netanyahu said. “First of all, pressure Qatar.”

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry spokesman strongly condemned Netanyahu’s remarks on Wednesday, and suggested they could imperil Doha’s efforts to get the remaining hostages out. “If the reported remarks are found to be true, the Israeli PM would only be obstructing and undermining the mediation process, for reasons that appear to serve his political career instead of prioritizing saving innocent lives, including Israeli hostages,” the spokesman said.

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An Israeli government spokesman declined a Semafor request to comment on Qatar’s comments.

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Jay’s view

Qatar, despite its deep ties to Hamas and other Middle East militant groups, has largely been able to stay above the political fray as Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip enters its fourth month. But this dynamic may be changing.

Prior to October 7, Netanyahu and successive U.S. administrations had agreed on a formula in which Qatar was allowed to fund Hamas and provide diplomatic sanctuary with the understanding Doha would work to constrain the Palestinian group’s military operations. Qatar’s largesse has included everything from paying for electricity in the Gaza Strip and gas for power generation to subsidizing the salaries of Hamas’ government workers. Israel sought to vet Doha’s financial outlays through United Nations offices in Gaza.

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Washington, meanwhile, has expanded its diplomatic and military ties with Qatar in recent years. The Trump administration launched the U.S.’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan through negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. President Biden has relied on Qatar to serve as a backchannel to Iran. In return, the U.S. has both designated Qatar as a major non-NATO U.S. ally and agreed this month to maintain the Al Udeid base – the Pentagon’s largest in the Mideast – in the country for another decade.

Hamas’ October attack has exposed holes in this overall strategy. But Israel and the U.S. have remained heavily reliant on Qatar to try and gain the release of the hostages taken by Hamas, which initially numbered more than 240. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has repeatedly lauded Qatar’s mediation efforts, and American diplomats have been regularly cycling through Doha.

Netanyahu’s outburst, though, could signal this sentiment is changing. A number of U.S. lawmakers have called in recent weeks for Qatar’s status as a major non-NATO ally to be rescinded and raised the prospect of Doha being designated as a state sponsor of terrorism due to its ties to Hamas. Jewish organizations, meanwhile, gathered outside Qatar’s embassy in Washington on Wednesday and called for more to be done to get the hostages home. This despite warnings from Qatar-funded organizations about the risks of such displays.

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The View From Washington

The Biden administration’s praise for Qatar since October 7 has been tempered by comments from senior U.S. officials indicating Doha’s relationship with Hamas will need to change after the hostage issue is resolved. U.S. officials tell Semafor that this could include Qatar shutting Hamas’ political office in Doha. And the militant group’s leadership could be forced to move to a third country, such as Algeria or Malaysia.

“I’ve also been making it clear in all of my conversations…that there can be no more business as usual with Hamas,” Blinken said in Doha shortly after the October attacks.

But pressure on Qatar has been limited due to the utility Biden administration diplomats still see in having back channels to Hamas and other organizations and governments Washington doesn’t talk to directly. Doha has particularly been used in recent months to communicate messages to Iran at a time when Washington and Tehran are dangerously close to war, driven by the escalating attacks by Iranian proxy groups on U.S. military bases and Western shipping interests in the Mideast.

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Notable

  • Qatar said it was exploring “all legal avenues” against Fox News on Sunday for a report that alleged Doha sought to silence U.S. lawmakers critical of its support for Hamas and other groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. “It is extremely disappointing that disinformation campaigns against Qatar are being amplified in the media amid our extensive mediation efforts in Gaza,” Qatar’s Washington embassy said in a statement.
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