Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Washington Post has a story up today gently knocking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being less than enthusiastic about the resurgence of the Arab Peace Initiative. The Arab plan is slightly improved from its past iterations, but to understand why Netanyahu is so cautious about embracing the plan as an outline for negotiations, the Post story should be read in tandem with Jeffrey Goldberg’s incisive and spot-on portrait of the Qatari government in his latest Bloomberg column.
The setting for the column is a Brookings Institution event to honor Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani. Brookings is, along with Hamas and other sordid outfits in whose company Brookings does not belong, funded by the Qatari government. Goldberg makes plain his discomfort with this. As I wrote in January, Qatar has been playing every side of the Middle East’s various conflicts, most often as a nuisance to American objectives. Goldberg’s whole column is worth reading, but this particular gem sticks out with regard to the Arab peace plan:
For a reality check, I spoke to two administration officials deeply engaged on the Syria question and on Qatar’s role in supporting the rebels. (They requested anonymity to speak freely.) They painted an unpretty picture. The officials were pleased by the role Qatar is playing in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but they were flummoxed by its support for Hamas — which directly undermines the possibility of achieving an equitable two-state solution (Hamas being, as it is, opposed to Israel’s existence). They were also concerned that Qatar may be supporting the most radical Syrian group, the Nusra Front, which is openly affiliated with al-Qaeda.
American officials who are “pleased by the role Qatar is playing in the Arab-Israeli peace process” while also acknowledging that Qatar funds Hamas–a terrorist government that has both the desire and ability to derail any progress on Arab-Israeli peace while constantly putting innocent lives in danger–are being scammed. And far too easily for people who work for the president of the United States.
Goldberg calls Qatar “an attention-starved teenager.” He puts the country’s foreign policy in context: Qatar supports Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and is believed to be funding the most radical Islamist groups in Syria; but Qatar also funds Brookings and hosts U.S. Central Command forward headquarters. Those are strategic calculations, and they are well-placed and well-played. On the diplomatic front, Qatar publicly claims to support Israeli-Palestinian peace while making certain to undermine it in every possible way.
But appearances–and money–are important, especially in a world with vanishing superpower influence. As Moises Naim notes in his new book, The End of Power:
One of the best examples of smaller countries that have used coalitions of the willing, economic diplomacy (i.e. a lot of money), and soft power to advance their interests must surely be Qatar. It led the way in toppling Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi by supplying rebels with money, training, and more than twenty thousand tons of weapons, and called early for the arming of rebels in Syria. It has attempted mediation in Yemen, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Palestine and–importantly–in Lebanon. Through an $85 billion investment fund, Qatar has bought into businesses from Volkswagen to the Paris St. Germain Football Club. And it is not only behind what is perhaps the most influential new news organization, the network Al Jazeera, but has been building up its reputation as a cultural center with top-rated museums of Islamic and Middle Eastern art as well as high-profile purchases of pieces by the likes of Warhol, Rothko, Cezanne, Koons, and Lichtenstein.
Throwing that kind of money around the worlds of soccer, art, news media, and violent revolution is the mark of a serious player in world affairs. But that doesn’t mean the Qataris are serious about each of those issues, or that the issues themselves are serious. I don’t mean to knock soccer or Cezanne, but simultaneously funding a wave of revolutions and the media on the ground covering them is a far better compass to guide our interpretation of Qatar’s intentions than partying with Brookings or making canned pronouncements that amount to, essentially, “peace is good; the Arabs and Jews should have more of it.”
Thus with regard to the Arab Peace Initiative, Qatar is attempting to play everyone for fools. Netanyahu recognizes this, because he is not a fool. His reaction, then, was to subtly shift attention from what Qatar claims to support–peace–to what it undeniably does support–anti-Semitic terrorist groups and their unending war against Israel, as well as anything that weakens Western influence in the region that creates a vacuum into which Qatar can step. Neither the Obama administration nor the Netanyahu government is put in an easy position by this, but it will not be made any easier by denying the obvious.