Zionist Organization of America leader Mort Klein in January became the latest high-profile Jewish leader from the US to visit Qatar. His visit comes four months after the ZOA released a statement saying he had declined an invitation by “his Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the pro-Hamas Emir of the State of Qatar.” ZOA went further at the time, saying that in response to “Qatar’s material support for designated foreign terrorist organizations, ZOA has asked the US State Department to designate Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism.” Klein says his trip won’t change his view until Qatar shows it is changing its ways.
The successful campaign by Doha to fly Jewish and pro-Israel voices to the Gulf for discussions with leaders of the emirate has gained traction in recent months after it faced difficulties last year. It is part of a larger multi-million-dollar charm offensive in the US through which Qatar is trying to get back in the good graces of the US administration. On January 30, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis welcomed Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani for a “strategic dialogue” in Washington.
Within the US Jewish community, particularly in Washington and New York circles, the debate about Qatar has become bitter. It has spilled out into op-eds in the press. In conversations with numerous individuals involved on both sides of the discussion, they described how Qatar’s charm offensive has created controversy and become a point of contention among people who often saw eye-to-eye on Middle East issues affecting Israel’s security.
Qatar’s sudden interest in pro-Israel circles appeared last fall, several months after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries broke relations with Doha in June 2017, and accused the emirate of supporting terrorism. Qatar was isolated and flailing around for support, reaching out to Iran and also to Turkey where it has enjoyed unique support. Turkey sent soldiers to warn off any offensive.
The Gulf crisis led Qatar to seek out what seemed like strange bedfellows in the US Jewish community. But those who have dealt with the Qataris say it’s a more complex story. One of those familiar with the situation described himself as “second-to-none on pro-Israel credentials” and said working with Qatar is “good work” that helps Israel. “Ultimately Qatar has been in bed with a lot of people,” but there “is an opportunity to move them in a pro-Israel direction and help them out of the crisis.”
That has resulted in a line of Jewish figures making their way to Doha on flights paid for by the emirate. Besides Klein, one of the latest to go was famed lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz argued in a recent op-ed that it’s worthwhile listening to Qatar while subjecting their claims to rigorous testing.
David Weinberg, Washington representative for international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League and an expert on the Gulf states, says hate-preachers in Qatar and Al Jazeera continue to be a source of incitement and antisemitism. “Qatar has spent millions and millions of dollars trying to shape opinion in the West without necessarily changing the root problems with the Qatari government’s conduct,” he says. “It’s not surprising that under unprecedented pressure in its neighborhood that they would be stepping up efforts to fund outreach to various communities that seek to influence policy in the US.”
HOW DOES Qatar go about its outreach? Shmully Hecht, cofounder and rabbinical adviser of Shabtai, the Jewish Society at Yale, wrote recently that he was approached a few months ago by Nick Muzin, whom he has known for 15 years. Muzin is a former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff for US Sen. Ted Cruz. “We have studied Jewish texts together, celebrated Shabbos at each other’s homes,” Hecht wrote at a blog at Times of Israel. “I was astounded that he was asking me to meet with the head of a country that funds Hamas, a terrorist organization.”
Before meeting with the Qataris, Hecht says he consulted “a former national security adviser and a former ambassador to Israel.” They said “engage with Qatar,” he writes. When he met the Emir he got more than a charm offensive. “The Emir at times referred to Israel as ‘Palestine,’ yet it was clear that everyone around the table was there to try and bridge the very wide gaps.”
Muzin is at the center of Qatar’s attempts to woo the US Jewish community. According to documents filed with the Department of Justice and pursuant to the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938, Muzin’s Stonington Strategies LLC signed an agreement with the Embassy of Qatar on August 24, 2017. For $50,000 a month, the consultant services would include “the development and implementation of a government relations strategy for the State of Qatar.” In December 2017, Qatar upped its payment to $300,000 a month to Stonington Strategies, according to a separate filing. By that time other important Jewish figures such as the Orthodox Union’s Menachem Genack had been to Doha. Klein and Dershowitz seem to have changed the balance though. January was a big month for Qatar.
“What’s interesting about Mort [Klein] is that he is the biggest hawk anti-terror Jew ever. It would be one thing if [former Obama adviser] Ben Rhodes or [J Street’s] Jeremy Ben-Ami went and they were talking about how working with Qatar is three-dimensional chess,” says one of those familiar with the situation who has opposed Jewish leaders heading to Qatar. Doha’s key has been to seek out pro-Israel and traditionally right-wing, including religious, Jewish voices. It appears to understand that these voices have the most street credibility in linking Qatar to the current Israeli and US administrations.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has been one of the most outspoken critics of this trend. “In all my years of Jewish communal activism, I have never seen an effort of this scope, with this much resources, to influence the US Jewish community to scrub clean the terror financing record of an Arab government,” he says. Boteach argues that those who are whitewashing Qatar’s record are disgracing themselves. “If Qatar wants to burnish its image, it need only cease funding Hamas. But buying up the American Jewish community, or attempting to, will ultimately backfire, especially on those who participate in the effort.”
Boteach says he “respectfully challenges” Dershowitz to a public debate on this issue. “If Qatar succeeded in simultaneously continuing their funding of Hamas and burnishing their image among American Jews, who is to say the next client won’t be Iran? Who is to say the next client won’t be Hezbollah?”
FOR THOSE like Boteach, the anger at Qatar is based on first-hand experience. “In 2014, I took my children to Israel to visit the wounded soldiers of the Gaza war.” He says he’ll never forget that Qatar helped fund the maiming of those soldiers.
Years before pro-Israel voices began making their way to Qatar, there were Jewish delegations that visited the United Arab Emirates. It’s not “influence peddling,” say those involved in the UAE trips. It was about breaking down misconceptions and finding civil society cooperation. As with Qatar, those who were involved with the UAE trips say that they were also initially accused of whitewashing “the Arabs.” However, the fruits of the UAE relationship appear to have been a genuine attempt by Abu Dhabi to confront extremism and promote religious tolerance. Now with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side and Qatar on the other, the war for the hearts and minds of the pro-Israel community is in full swing.
For all of those involved, the debate about Qatar boils down to what they think is best for Israel. On one side are those who argue that Qatar is attempting to use Jews, particularly pro-Israel Jewish leaders, to whitewash its image. It isn’t changing and Hamas is still hosted in Qatar, as well as other extremists and anti-Israel voices, such as former Israeli member of Knesset Azmi Bishara and Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi. They point to recent and previous statements by the Israeli Embassy in Washington to Haaretz and Forbes opposing the trips.
Those who support the Qatari initiative say that there is an opportunity here, now that Doha is isolated, to get them to change. They argue Qatar has little leverage over Hamas and if Doha was able to get Hamas to release Israelis held in Gaza, it would merely prove Qatar’s influence. Therefore Doha’s inability to move on some key pro-Israel concerns is evidence that it isn’t close to Hamas.
Others argue that if Qatar can help to get the captives released it is a Jewish obligation to try. They also argue that talking to Qatar is supported by members of Israel’s military and intelligence community who are used to dealing with Qatar in Gaza, because the emirate provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for construction. Israel views Qatar as a positive force keeping Gaza from financial collapse, they say. All of those I spoke to asserted they had consulted Israeli officials and insiders before going. They say a lot of progress is being made in these meetings, not just with Qatar benefiting but with Qatar opening itself up to Israel.
For the critics of the campaign, the last few weeks have been jaw-dropping. “It’s incredible,” one source said. “The problem is, when you focus on the Jewish community, they [Qatar] don’t have much to say, they still support terror. They might invite an [Israeli] tennis player, but they don’t do security cooperation [with Israel].” It is good intentions gone bad.
Qatar agrees that the attempt to influence the community is “gaining traction” and that it has found success in the past months. Insiders say more revelations regarding the Gulf are to come and that the importance of Qatar and the tempest within the pro-Israel community has been blown out of proportion.
Another person who is familiar with the situation, says the Qatar campaign has led to nasty arguments and a “food fight” within pro-Israel circles. They accuse each other of being paid off or of being anti-Qatar only because the emir didn’t invite them. As Qatar signs agreements in Washington it may ease up on the campaign and the rancor may die down.