How the Qatar crisis threatens Israel's strategic interests

The Qatar crisis has brought a tectonic shift to how Washington’s influence game is played as the feuding sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf are now soliciting Jewish influence to fight their battles.

By SIGURD NEUBAUER
April 11, 2018 21:10
rex tillerson qatar

Qatar's foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a joint news conference in Doha, Qatar, July 11, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The perceived tectonic shifts in geopolitical alliances, including between Israel and the Gulf states, has ignited an old discussion: do American Jewish and Israeli interests automatically overlap? What is new to this discussion, however, is the emergence of lobbyists and public relations consultants who have been commissioned by the Gulf states and by the United Arab Emirates in particular to bring their agendas to Washington, where they have sought to capitalize on the American Jewish community – whether on Capitol Hill or in Washington policy circles – to influence US policy on their behalf.

The Qatar crisis has brought a tectonic shift to how Washington’s influence game is played as the feuding sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf are now soliciting Jewish influence to fight their battles.

Fortunately, America’s organized Jewish community has not taken the bait by picking sides in the nasty Gulf disputes, as the UAE’s influence peddling has now become linked to the Robert Mueller investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 US presidential elections.

Tensions between Qatar and the members of the so-called Anti-Terrorism Quartet (Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) are long-standing.

What is less known, however, is that Abu Dhabi has sought to obfuscate its well-financed anti-Qatar campaign in Washington by presenting it as a “neoconservative” coalition comprised of mostly hawkish- leaning American policymakers seeking to take Doha to task over its alleged supporter of terrorism and extremism.

Qatar has denied the allegations.

Center stage in this unfolding drama is businessman Elliot Broidy. As “a top fundraiser for President Trump,” Broidy “received millions of dollars from a political adviser to the United Arab Emirates last April, just weeks before he began handing out a series of large political donations to U.S. lawmakers considering legislation targeting Qatar,” The Associated Press reported in March. The report continues, “Broidy bankrolled that [Foundation for the Defense of Democracies] conference and contributed to the financing of a second conference hosted on a similar theme in October by another think tank, the Hudson Institute.” During the FDD conference, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (R-California) “announced he was introducing legislation that would brand Qatar as a terrorist-supporting state. Two months after Royce introduced the bill, Broidy gave the California congressman $5,400 in campaign gifts — the maximum allowed by law,” the AP added.

Royce repeated his anti-Qatar rhetoric at the Hudson conference in October.

After the groundwork was laid in Washington, the ATQ imposed a blockade on Qatar in June.

It is well understood in Washington policy circles that the campaign against Qatar sought to take advantage of US President Donald Trump’s inexperience in order to push for regime change in Doha or at the very least force the US to vacate its air base there, at al-Udaid. When that failed, efforts were made by the same cabal of lobbyists to cripple Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network by forcing it to register as a foreign agent.

The Gulf standoff has since evolved into a prolonged stalemate, even though it has been long established that it is the UAE that is driving the crisis and actively blocking Trump’s repeated attempts to solve it.

But the UAE is also harassing Qatar in the Gulf. The UAE recently lodged a complaint with the International Civil Aviation Organization after accusing Qatari fighter jets of approaching civilian flights.

While Qatar has officially denied the allegations, unnamed sources told me that the UAE did not dispatch civilian aircrafts but military transport planes. The message was not lost on anyone as the unpredictable state of the Gulf dispute could trigger a military conflict, which forces Doha to draw closer to Tehran.

These dynamics threaten Israel’s long-term security interests.

In the short run, Israel is benefiting from Qatari and UAE officials engaging with America’s Jews, but the dispute is undermining Israel’s strategic interests as the Gulf monarchies are becoming weaker, which forces them to strengthening ties with external powers – such as Iran, Turkey and Russia – as Trump is widely perceived as being unable to solve the crisis.

The smaller Gulf monarchies such as Kuwait and Oman fear that the squeeze on Doha is really about establishing Saudi hegemony, which explains why they are seeking alternative security arrangements.

This by itself is not only a strategic calamity for Washington as its influence is slowly vanishing, but is already impacting US military operations across the Middle East, and has strengthened Tehran’s regional standing in the process.

In addition to driving the Gulf crisis, the UAE has made a strategic decision to strengthen relations with Riyadh by advocating for its interests in Washington.

Toward that end, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has been introduced in Washington as a reformer by the same cabal of influencers that are smearing Qatar. MbS’s recent interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in which he recognizes Israel, serves the UAE’s objective of promoting Riyadh in Washington.

These developments weakens the Gulf as Qatar, Oman and Kuwait fear that MbS is outsmarting Trump by playing lip service to Israel while consolidating Saudi hegemony.

Amid this unstable environment, the UAE is expected to appeal to Trump’s America First agenda in order to obtain the F-35 fighter jet. It is well understood in Washington that if the UAE acquires the F-35, so too will Saudi Arabia.

If they succeed, it would not only close Israel’s military gap but force the smaller Gulf states to strengthen their alliances with either Russia, Iran or Turkey.

These dynamics underscore why the Qatar crisis is threatening Trump’s regional agenda – which centers on bringing Israel closer to the GCC – and contrary to conventional wisdom, Israel’s long-term interests are threatened by the instability in the Gulf.

Even if MbS’s de facto recognition of Israel is historic and push to promote a more tolerant and inclusive Islam are welcomed developments, the regional dynamics as rooted in the changing Gulf dynamics – in which Washington looses influence at the expense of Tehran, Moscow and Ankara – underscore why rapprochement with Riyadh is arguably not a desired substitute for Israel, as it prefers a unified Gulf that is amenable to US influence.

For these reasons, don’t expect any movement on the Saudi-Israeli front any time soon.

Instead, Israel is likely to maintain low-level/covert ties with all of the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, at this chaotic moment in time.

The author is a Middle East analyst and columnist based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @SigiMideast.


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