Mindful of its declining appetite for projecting power in the Middle East, the U.S. is relying on more activist partners in the region such Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to arm the Syrian rebellion. But Tuesday’s visit to Gaza by Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani — to the delight of the territory’s Hamas rulers and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, while Israel and Fatah fumed — was a reminder that U.S. allies in the region often pursue goals quite different from those of Washington, despite many shared objectives and common enemies. And the relative decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East has seen some of those independently-minded allies grow more assertive in pressing their agendas.
In Monday’s presidential campaign foreign policy debate, Gov. Mitt Romney rejected U.S. military intervention in Syria, noting instead that “The Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks are … willing to work with us. We need to have a very effective leadership effort in Syria, making sure that the insurgents there are armed, and that the insurgents that become armed are people who will be the responsible parties.” President Obama also talked up cooperation with regional allies, but warned that “we have to [make] absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.”
But the Emir’s visit to Gaza makes clear that Qatar, the tiny Emirate whose massive natural gas reserves give it the world’s highest per capita income as well as geopolitical punching power way above its weight, has sharply different ideas from Washington’s about just who the “responsible parties” will be in a changing Middle East. Hamas, after all, is formally shunned by the U.S. and European powers as a terrorist organization, and Washington has shown little enthusiasm for efforts by Arab governments, including Qatar, to promote reconciliation between the Islamists and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was reportedly furious at the Qatari leader’s decision to become the first foreign head of state to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza, effectively blessing the Islamist’ rule there. The Emir’s purpose was to inaugurate Qatar’s $400 billion investment in rebuilding infrastructure smashed in repeated confrontations with Israel — a massive stimulus to an economy choked off by a five-year siege imposed by Israel with Egyptian compliance.
Sheik Hamad seemed unmoved by Abbas’ ire or Washington’s discomfort, his effort to rehabilitate Gaza and coax Hamas into the Arab mainstream prompted by the malign neglect of Gaza by all parties to the now moribund peace process. It’s also a reflection of the political paralysis of Fatah after a decade of passively waiting in vain for the U.S. to restart a credible peace process. And, there’s thinly disguised geopolitical agenda, too: driving a wedge between Iran and Hamas, and drawing the movement back into the moderate Islamist mainstream.
It’s also worth noting, however, that the mass rally planned as the centerpiece of Sheikh Hamad’s visit was abruptly canceled at the last minute, when the soccer-stadium venue was just one-fifth full and it became clear that the Gaza public wasn’t exactly rushing to the event — Gaza Palestinians are just as disdainful of their Hamas rulers as West Bank Palestinians are of their Fatah rulers, as was demonstrated in the low turnout at municipal election last weekend boycotted by Hamas — and even then, the official Fatah candidates lost six of the 11 main seats. The Qatari leader did address a smaller crowd at a local university, and urged reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.”Why are you staying divided?” he said. “There are no peace negotiations, and there is no clear strategy of resistance and liberation. Why shouldn’t brothers sit together and reconcile?”
Washington responded cautiously to the visit, preferring — at least publicly — to take at face value Qatar’s insistence that the visit had an entirely “humanitarian” purpose. “We share Qatar’s deep concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people including those residing in Gaza,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland on Tuesday. We remain concerned about Hamas’ destabilizing role in Gaza and the region, and we urge all parties in the region to play a constructive role in bringing the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table.”
Promoting peace is exactly what the Qataris would say they’re doing in Gaza, and in pressing for Palestinian reconciliation. The idea of a more assertive Palestinian polity that includes Hamas in a prominent role won’t appeal to either Washington or Israel, of course, nor to Abbas who has long claimed a monopoly on representing the Palestinians regardless of the verdict of his electorate. But Palestinian society has grown largely indifferent to Abbas’ diplomatic wanderings, and re-engaging them in the search for a national strategy may be critical to the prospects of winning legitimacy for any future peace deal. And a Hamas lawmaker involved in the visit, speaking anonymously, told the AP that “the Qatari leader urged Hamas to reconcile with Abbas’ forces and do everything possible to avoid violence with Israel.”