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Qatar and Israel: A Strategic but Complicated Alliance

Tzipi Livni Hamad bin Jassim alliance qatar Israel
Former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni meets former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim, april 2008 / Photo M. Milner/Rex Features

In 1991, former emir Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani expressed his support for the Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid, engaging Qatar in bilateral relations with the state of Israel. His successor, Hamad bin Khalifa was present at the signing ceremony of the ’Oslo 2’ agreement in 1995 between the Israelis and the Palestinians, giving his support to the peace process. This political support initiated several trade ventures between Qatar and Israel, leading to a warming of relations between the two countries. Qatar became the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state to grant Israel de facto recognition, when the first Israeli trade office in the GCC opened in Doha, following a visit by the Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres in 1996.

The election of Benyamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister, followed by the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in 1996, caused a significant deterioration in relations with Qatar. Yet, despite the Arab-Israeli peace process being stalled at the time, Qatar hosted the Israeli trade minister at the fourth annual Middle East and North Africa Economic Summit in Doha, in 1997, which caused Arab outrage; Saudi Arabia called the move threatening to ‘the higher interest of the Arab Nation’.

The pressure on Qatar to freeze its ties with Israel grew as the peace process was stagnating, and Israeli violations of the Oslo Accords made the Qatari government uneasy  in justifying their mutual trade relations with Israel. The first signs of distance between the two partners emerged and continued with the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000. The Qatari authorities expressed their criticism of the state of Israel and subsequently turned down Ehud Barak’s request to visit the country. Hamad eventually met Barak at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000.

As Doha was hosting the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in November 2000, Qatar’s continuing engagement with the Israelis caused a major political row with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other states. Qatar dismissed calls from the chair of the OIC to close the Israeli trade office. Eventually, however, the country gave in to regional pressures and announced the closure of the Israeli office in Doha on 9 November 2000. Further secret meetings between the two states did, however, take place, and the unofficial cooperation continued, according to Matthew Machowski, research fellow at Queen Mary University of London.

Former Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamad bin Jassim meets Silvan Shalom, Israeli Minister for Regional Development in Paris, 2003
Former Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamad bin Jassim meets Silvan Shalom, Israeli Minister for Regional Development in Paris, 2003

As Qatar’s diplomatic ambitions to become a regional player grew, it repeatedly offered to broker peace between Israel and the Arab states. In 2003, the Qatari and Israeli foreign ministers, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani and Silvan Shalom, met in Paris to discuss ways of forging a Middle East peace. In May 2003, Sheikh Hamad stated that ‘Qatar could consider a peace treaty with Israel if it served the Gulf state’s interests’. In 2005, as a positive step towards Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, Sheikh Hamad met with Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni on the sidelines of the UN meeting in New York.

Qatar has tried to balance its  relations with Israel between diplomacy that would allow it to use its regional influence to mediate Israeli-Arab relations and loyalty to the Palestinian cause. In 2006, Qatar offered its assistance during the war between Israel and Lebanon. It mediated between Israel and the Lebanese government and representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah. In 2006-2007, the Israelis supported Qatar’s non-permanent representation on the UN Security Council.

In April 2008, Israeli foreign minister Livni visited Qatar on her first trip to the Gulf region. Invited by the former emir, Bin Khalifa al-Thani, Livni held many meetings, including one with the emir. Qatar was criticized widely for this by its neighbours, but Israel prizes it in a region of many resistance movements and governments who refuse to talk to Israel as long as the occupation of Palestinian lands continues.

The relationship between the two countries reached a turning point in December 2008, when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, in what the Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, called ‘the flagrant savage aggression against the Palestinian people’. Qatar disengaged from all ties with Israel, shut down the trade office, and expelled all Israeli representatives. However, Qatar had offered to assist in brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in early 2009. The Qatari leader passed on the message through an Israeli Knesset member (of the progressive leftist party, Meretz) and the former foreign minister, Yossi Beilin. The two had met in Qatar at a meeting for former foreign ministers.

Once a truce was brokered between Israel and the Palestinians and the international condemnation of Israeli actions in Gaza lessened, Qatar made efforts to re-establish its relationship with Israel in 2009 and 2010, on condition that Israel allow Qatar to send building materials and money to Gaza to help rehabilitate its economy and infrastructure. In addition, Israel was to acknowledge publicly Qatar’s role in forging peace in the Middle East. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman rejected the Qatari initiative.

In the following years, Qatar-Israeli relations remained stable. Qatar claims that it is able to engage politically with numerous political players on an equal footing as regional peace broker. In November 2012, Israel launched an attack on the Gaza Strip, destroying much of the infrastructure of the Strip. In a show of solidarity, the emir of Qatar visited the Gaza Strip in October 2012. Israel gave its permission for this visit, as a joint effort with the United States to redirect Hamas away from Iran and Syria and help them establish relationships with the more Western-oriented and Sunni-moderate Middle Eastern countries, such as EgyptTurkey, and Jordan. Egypt, however, distanced itself again from Hamas after the military coup that ousted the Hamas-friendly government of Mohammed Morsi.

Qatar will continue its dialogue with Israel for strategic and economic reasons. Qatar’s relations with Israel are meant to strengthen its ties with the West, including the United States, and Qatar hopes that economic ties with Israel will lead to sales of its plentiful natural gas. The Qatari government is also interested in strengthening its high-tech sector by acquiring knowledge and technology and by encouraging Israeli high-tech companies to export jobs and development projects to Qatar rather than to India or Eastern Europe.

The amount of trade between Israel and Qatar has been modest: Israeli exports to Qatar amounted to 509,000 USD in 2012 (598,000 USD in 2008), and its imports from Qatar amounted to 353,000 USD in 2013 (2,141,000 USD in 2008), according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Israeli exports to Qatar consisted mainly of machinery, computer equipment, and medical instruments, and its imports from Qatar were primarily plastics.

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