Recep Tayyip Erdogan earnestly wanted to be the first head of state to visit
Hamas-controlled Gaza. Turkey’s Islamist prime minister had hoped to add the
stop to his Cairo visit in September 2011, when he also traveled to Tunisia and
Libya to join new governments in celebrating the Islamist fruits of the Arab
Spring. But he changed his mind just before leaving Turkey for his regional
tour. “I will not visit Gaza, but I’m longing to visit Gaza as soon as
possible,” said a disheartened Erdogan.
Erdogan’s interest in Gaza – and
animosity toward Israel – reflects his eagerness to be the region’s Muslim
champion of the Palestinians. This ambition soared after the Turkish ship Mavi
Marmara was stopped by Israeli forces while trying to break the naval blockade
of Gaza. Many of the passengers were affiliated with the IHH, a Turkish Islamist
group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The violence that greeted Israeli
commandos, and the deaths of eight Turks, led to a further deterioration in
Israeli-Turkish relations and deepened Erdogan’s empathy for the Palestinians.
Not just any Palestinians. He favors Hamas.
Another Muslim leader,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has hosted Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh in
Tehran, had an opportunity to embrace him in Gaza City. Two years ago Hamas
invited Ahmadinejad, hoping to mimic the publicity and morale boost that the
Iranian president personally delivered to Hezbollah supporters during a visit to
southern Lebanon in October 2010, when he stood near the border and looked into
“the Zionist entity.”
Strangely, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, leader
of the Muslim Brotherhood and ideologically tied with Hamas, has not yet found
time or displayed interest in visiting Gaza. A Morsi visit would elicit protest
from both Jerusalem and Washington.
Ironically, it took the leader of one
of the Arab world’s smallest and yet wealthiest countries to break the
diplomatic barrier. Last week’s visit of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the
emir of Qatar, who entered Gaza by car from Egypt, evidently with Morsi’s
cooperation, will have lasting repercussions for Palestinians, Israel, the
region and the United States.
Al-Thani proclaimed support for Palestinian
aspirations and for Hamas.
From Palestinian Authority headquarters in
Ramallah, there were expressions of concern. PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas has not
been to Gaza since Hamas violently wrested control there more than five years
ago. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also has been banned from Gaza.
Palestinians, though, Qatar’s diplomatic efforts thus far have been
unsuccessful. The emir tried earlier this year to achieve the Fatah-Hamas
reconciliation that has eluded Egypt and other mediators for years. With great
fanfare, Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal signed in Doha another agreement
that gathers dust. Al-Thani’s Gaza visit does not advance resolving Palestinian
political differences, nor the chances of peace with Israel.
Islamist nation that supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and enjoys American
security protection, Qatar is viewed by many in the West as a force of
moderation in an increasingly turbulent sea of radicalism and
Qatar played important roles in the political transformations
in Libya and Tunisia by supporting Islamist groups in both nations, and is
currently backing certain Islamist opponents of the Assad regime in
But Qatari and US visions for the Middle East do not dovetail. In
Gaza the emir said nothing about peace with Israel. The more than 80 rockets
that landed in Israel from Gaza the day after the emir’s visit, and the barrage
that has continued since, give the impression that Qatar, a US ally, not only
endorses the Hamas posture, but even encourages it.
Ironically, there was
a time, not too long ago, when al-Thani’s maverick foreign policy suggested a
more positive posture towards Israel. Shimon Peres, while serving as Israel’s
prime minister, visited Qatar in 2006. Israel opened a low-level diplomatic
legation in Doha. It was the heyday of Oslo, a period that saw US President Bill
Clinton visit Gaza and address the Palestinian legislature.
unmistakable sign of moderation would be to emulate the courage of Anwar Sadat,
to recognize Israel and encourage other Arab leaders to do the same. Qatar,
however, was quick to cut off any semblance of official ties to Israel during
Operation Cast Lead. Now, Qatar has sought to take advantage of shifting
political winds, repercussions of the so-called Arab Spring, to use its vast
financial resources to extend its regional influence.
activism will demand the attention of President Obama or Gov. Romney after the
US elections next week. The US should use its influence with Egypt, Qatar and
other Arab governments to ensure that the emir’s Gaza initiative remains the
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of