How Qatar’s Jewish strategy backfired

A look at how foreign countries lobby in Washington, reaching out to groups and individuals who they think can open doors.

By
June 21, 2018 21:08
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the 25th Arab Summit in Kuwait City. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Six months ago, in January 2018, the world looked hopeful for Qatar. The small Gulf state had been blockaded by its neighbor Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh’s allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke relations. Qatar, which hosts a large US base, invested millions in a public relations effort in the US to counter its enemies. In the last days of January the US secretaries of state and defense sat with the Qatari leadership for a US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue confab. Doha seemed on the road to victory.

US President Donald Trump hosted Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in April. It seemed the PR effort was paying off. Qatar wanted Americans to see the emirate as an ally and a victim. It was fighting terrorism, it said, and it had changed its ways in terms of being a conduit for alleged terrorism finance to groups such as Hamas. In mid-January Alan Dershowitz, writing on The Hill website about his trip to Qatar, even wrote that it was becoming the “Israel of the Gulf states” and claimed that Qatari officials had told him Hamas leaders had left Doha.

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Dershowitz was one of a long list of pro-Israel Americans, including prominent Jews, who went to Qatar in the fall of 2017 and first months of 2018. Qatar carried out its outreach to US Jews through various channels, one of which was Nick Muzin, who had formerly worked with Sen. Ted Cruz and ran a firm called Stonington Strategies.

On June 6 Muzin wrote on Twitter that “Stonington Strategies is no longer representing the State of Qatar.” He said he had gone into the work to “foster peaceful dialogue in the Middle East” and to increase Qatar’s defense and economic ties to the US. Muzin’s break with the emirate coincided with the Zionist Organization of America condemning Qatar for its “giant step backward.” Mort Klein, head of ZOA, wrote on June 6 that he had traveled to Doha in January “to fight for Israel, America and the Jewish people.” But Qatar had “failed to do the right thing.”

A week later a man named Joseph Allaham filed paperwork with the US Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act unit. He registered Lexington Strategies as working for the State of Qatar and noted that after doing initial work to promote the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, “the understanding was expanded to include relationship-building with the leadership in the Jewish community in the United States to better international relations.

Methods of performance included peaceful means of community engagement, charitable contributions and arranging meetings in the US and visits to Qatar.” Qatar had given a grant of $1.45 million, according to the document.

In an email Allaham wrote that he is “proud of the work that Mort Klein has done and all the other Jewish leaders working in collaboration with the Emir and other members of the Qatari Royal Family.

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Mr. Klein has made great strides for the American Jewish community and Israel. These accomplishments, some public and some will remain private- go far beyond what many other leaders of the Jewish community and state officials have achieved with Qatar.”

The Allaham filing, disclosing his previous relationship, apparently marked the end of his work with Qatar. “I had planned for a while on announcing my resignation,” he wrote in a statement at MSNBC in the first week of June.

He said it had nothing to do with “the Broidy case,” a lawsuit filed by Elliott Broidy against Qatar.

Broidy had been named in articles in May 2018 claiming that he was one of those whom Saudi Arabia and the UAE had worked with to “influence the White House” and, as Slate.com wrote, “to push anti-Qatar policies.” The Broidy case is complex and involves allegations that, as Armin Rosen at Tablet explained, “Qatari-hired hacked emails formed the basis for stories in the Associated Press and The New York Times.” Rosen concluded that the Broidy case and Muzin’s tweet were “likely to mark the end of Qatar’s latest efforts to court American Jews.”

ON ONE level the whole story of Qatar’s efforts is a tale about the Jewish community. It involves allegations of corruption and well-meaning people being naively duped by a Gulf monarchy that thought that the Jewish community was the avenue toward influencing Washington. This is an antisemitic trope, one of those familiar with the lobbying effort says.

But the larger story is also about clumsy lobbying by Qatar, which appeared unfamiliar with both the community and the abilities of the various firms it sought to work with. In contrast to its bumbling Jewish strategy, Qatar also hired former US attorney-general John Ashcroft to help its PR efforts in June 2017. In May 2018 it also reached out to Debevoise & Plimpton, an international law firm, to work with former attorney-general Michael Mukasey, according to a FARA filing.

The groups, individuals and firms connected to the pro-Israel community have ignited controversy through their relationship to Qatar. Critics point out the ease with which some influential people were convinced to go to a Gulf monarchy and the murky stories in which they were accused of lobbying for the emirate or compromising their pro-Israel credentials to do so raise questions about whether pro-Israel voices are for sale and why they engaged so gullibly in what appears to be a proxy conflict between Gulf polities. The revelations also shed an unwanted spotlight on how lobbying by foreign countries works in Washington, and how Qatar and other states seek to influence the US, reaching out to groups and individuals they think are powerful to open doors.

There are other significant issues involved. Many of those who went to Qatar genuinely wanted to get it to influence Hamas to release Israelis held in Gaza. Many say they wanted to encourage Qatar to stop support for Hamas and, by doing so, help peace efforts in Israel. They might have thought their efforts dovetailed with the Trump administration seeking its own “deal of the century” between Israel, the Palestinians and others.

The Bible says that people should beat their swords into plowshares, and some of those who met with Qatar had deep faith that they could do good for Israel, perhaps bringing peace between Israel and a Gulf state. But were they helping Israel and the US or being used to undermine US foreign policy? Some also wanted to stop the airing of an Al Jazeera documentary on “the Israel lobby” that apparently included embarrassing scenes with an undercover Al Jazeera reporter who met pro-Israel groups in the US.

Oddly, Qatar has sought to claim it doesn’t control Al Jazeera content, leaving an Al Jazeera journalist to wonder if not airing the documentary would now be used to prove that Al Jazeera is a “foreign entity” controlled by the government.

That’s a catch-22 for Qatar.

If the documentary is aired now, it could be seen as revenge against the pro-Israel figures they flew to Doha.

This is not the end of the Qatar story. The emirate invested heavily in working with the Jewish and pro-Israel community. If it does patch things up with its neighbors, there will be many who do not forget the controversies of 2017-2018, and there are many within the community who now look askance at one another over the experience.

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