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Israel and the Gulf States: It’s Complicated: Raphael Ahren, Times of Israel, Aug. 9, 2013—In February 2009, a few days after Israel concluded its Operation Cast Lead against Gaza terrorists, the chief of protocol at Qatar’s Foreign Ministry invited Roi Rosenblit, who at the time headed Israel’s interest office in Doha, for a meeting in his office.
Qatar’s Geopolitical Gamble: How the Gulf State May Have Overreached: Viviene Walt, Time World, July 23, 2013—Qatar, the tiny gas-rich peninsula in the Persian Gulf, had poured nearly $5 billion into Morsi’s government in its one short year in office, propping up Egypt’s teetering economy, and investing — or so it thought — in a lasting relationship with the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Kuwait's Hidden Hand in Syria: Daniel R. DePetris, The National Interest, July 16, 2013—It is often assumed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most adamant about arming Syria’s fractious rebel movement. But there is growing evidence that clerics and opposition politicians in Kuwait have also been stepping up their own efforts in an attempt to collect as much cash for Bashar al-Assad’s opponents as possible.
Israel as a Gulf State: Malcolm Lowe, Gatestone Institute, July 29, 2013
Oman Has Its Cake and Eats It Too — For Now: Daniel Wagner & Giorgio Cafiero, Real Clear World, July 29, 2013
Mideast's Real Battle: Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar: Jonathan Tepperman, New York Times, July 12, 2013
Times of Israel, Aug. 9, 2013
In February 2009, a few days after Israel concluded its Operation Cast Lead against Gaza terrorists, the chief of protocol at Qatar’s Foreign Ministry invited Roi Rosenblit, who at the time headed Israel’s interest office in Doha, for a meeting in his office. Rosenblit knew exactly what awaited him: a few days earlier he had seen how then-Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim, angry over Palestinian casualties, announced live on al-Jazeera that the period of normalization with Israel needed to end.
The Qatari diplomat welcomed Rosenblit, friendly as always, served him tea with za’atar, and then handed him an envelope. In the letter, the government of Qatar politely yet determinedly informed the Israeli that he had one week to close down the Israeli mission on 15 al-Buhturi Street, and leave the country. Since then, Israel no longer officially maintains diplomatic relations with any of the Arab states in the Gulf — or does it?
It is widely believed that Jerusalem still maintains some sort of engagement with various states in the Persian Gulf region. Yet the government is extremely careful not to publicly admit such ties — in order not to jeopardize them. One thing is certain: Jerusalem is vocally advocating for stronger ties with the overwhelmingly Sunni Gulf states in the Gulf, hoping both for commercial opportunities and geo-strategic advantages. On July 18, the Israeli Foreign Ministry opened a Twitter channel exclusively “dedicated to promoting dialogue with the people of the GCC region.” The GCC, short for Cooperation Council of Arab States in the Gulf, includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait. (Never mind that Israel still officially considers Saudi Arabia an enemy state and prohibits its citizens from entering the country.)
Within less than a month, the “official channel of the virtual Israeli Embassy to GCC countries” picked up more than 1,100 followers. On Tuesday, on the occasion of the Eid al-Fitr holiday (which marks the end of Ramadan), the channel hosted a live chat with Foreign Ministry director-general Rafi Barak. The top diplomat mostly stuck to slogans, saying that Israel is interested in peace and neighborly relations with all its neighbors. One Kuwaiti wanted to know how he could visit Israel in the absence of an Israeli embassy; “You can apply for a visa in any Israeli mission abroad,” Barak responded, suggesting citizens of Arab states turn to the Israeli embassy in Amman.
Benoit Chapas, a EU official dealing with the Gulf states, wondered whether Israel had any “plans to reopen” its offices in the area. “We will be happy to,” Barak replied. He might as well have said: “we already did,” because, since earlier this year, Israelis know that the Foreign Ministry has recently taken a symbolically meaningful and potentially significant step indicating that ties between Israel and the Gulf are warming up again. A carelessly edited version of the 2013 state budget revealed that Israel opened a diplomatic office somewhere in the Persian Gulf. On page 213 of the document, readers learn that between 2010 and 2012, Israel opened 11 new representative offices across the globe, including one in the Gulf. Foreign Ministry sources in the know said they asked the Finance Ministry to remove the sensitive clause from the budget, but it is still there for anyone to see.
The exact nature of that mission — where it is, how many diplomats are or were stationed there, and whether it is still open — remains unclear. Unsurprisingly, the Foreign Ministry is unwilling to comment any further on the issue. “Others in the Foreign Ministry disagree with me, but as I see it, talking about it publicly would serve absolutely no purpose, other than risking whatever cooperation we have,” an Israeli diplomat well-versed in Jerusalem’s relationship with the Arab world said.
Indeed, the secrecy surrounding Israel’s mysterious office in the Gulf goes so far that even senior diplomats, including those dealing on a daily basis with the GCC, gave The Times of Israel conflicting information about it. Some asserted that “we have absolutely nothing” in the Gulf and that the line in the budget must have been an error. Others admitted that there is — or was — something but declined to detail.
Not everyone in the Foreign Ministry is happy with the idea of establishing a “virtual embassy” to openly engage with the residents of the Gulf states via social networks. “This ‘virtual activity’ will put our tangible activity at risk,” one diplomat opined. Israel and the Arab world have been engaging for decades, in various, mostly clandestine ways. In the 1990s, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, trade and political ties grew stronger, so much so that the Israeli chamber of commerce published a guide in Hebrew on how to do business in the Gulf. In 1994, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman, where he was greeted by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said (who is still reigning in Muscat). In 1995, a few days after Rabin was assassinated, then-acting prime minister Shimon Peres hosted Omani foreign minister Yusuf Ibn Alawi in Jerusalem….
It is not difficult to figure out why the Gulf states would be interested in closer cooperation with Israel. Most importantly, the Jewish state is a regional superpower, widely assumed to possess an impressive nuclear arsenal, and has openly vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring such weapons. The Gulf states, some of which have decades-old territorial disputes with Tehran, are just as scared as Israel is of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“In the Gulf, there is a particular concern over Iran and what appears to be the lackluster performance in Obama’s administration in stopping them from getting nuclear weapons,” said Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “This will lead, if it hasn’t already, to closer cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states.”
Indeed, Arabs in the Gulf believe in Jerusalem’s role in fighting Iran “because of their perception of Israel’s close relationship with the US, but also due to their sense that they can count on Israel against Iran,” then-Foreign Ministry deputy director-general (and current ambassador to Germany) Yacov Hadas-Handelsman said during a briefing with senior US officials in 2009. ”They believe Israel can work magic.”
But it’s more than just Iran. Israel and the Gulf states also have in common their fear of extremist political Islamism, such as practiced by Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hezbollah. While it is true that Qatar has good ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas — last year, the emir became the first head of state to visit Gaza since it was taken over by the Palestinian terrorist group in 2007 — the GCC states in general are afraid of political and religious extremists that threaten their rule, especially from Shiite elements. (Qatar is unique in the sense that it manages good relations to all players in the region and even the US).
According to experts, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, are more worried about the Muslim Brotherhood than about Iran. “Israel and Gulf states seek stability and they work together to further this stability. This leaves lots of room for common tasks, as long as they keep it secret,” said Teitelbaum, whose research focuses on political and social development in the Arab world and the Persian Gulf in particular.
If the GCC and Jerusalem are in the same camp, geo-strategically speaking, why the need to sweep any sort of cooperation under the rug? “Why should they cause problems when there are none?” Teitelbaum said. “They have so many other issues to deal with, the last thing they need to is to publicly call for cooperation with Israel.”
Public opinion in the Arab world was always against Israel, and Qatar and Oman could only allow themselves to open up to Israel after Rabin’s peace process had come into gear. As soon as Israeli-Palestinians violence flared up, they cut all official ties.
Perhaps ironically, the Arab Spring does not make easier for the Gulf states’ autocratic leaders to get closer to Israel again, experts say. For the first time in history, public opinion has become a determining factor of the Arab world’s political system, and the rulers in the Gulf will think twice before admitting any sort of engagement with the Zionist entity.
It’s not so much about the Gulf nations’ love for the Palestinians. “The leaders of the GCC states couldn’t care less about the 1967 borders,” said a Jerusalem source intimately familiar with GCC politics. “For all that matters to them, the Green Line could be somewhere between Ohio and Maryland. It is the conflict that bothers them, because it strengthens the radical forces in the region.”
The recent resumption of Israeli-Palestinians peace negotiations, unlikely as they are to yield any results, will not be enough to allow the Gulf states to openly reengage with Israel. There are ways, however, in which Israel could make it easier for them to work towards an détente, Teitelbaum suggested. For example by speaking positively about the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative – in which the entire Arab world offered normal diplomatic relations with Israel in return for a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians – or making a similar proposal to reach regional peace.
In the mean time, the GCC states will just stand on the sidelines and go on with business as usual — covert cooperation in the economic and intelligence fields but no official rapprochement. “Unless there is an official treaty with the Palestinians, I don’t think we can expect anything like formal relations,” Teitelbaum said. “That’s just how they are. From their perspective, it just doesn’t much sense…they have everything to gain from keeping it the way it is currently.”
QATAR’S GEOPOLITICAL GAMBLE:
HOW THE GULF STATE MAY HAVE OVERREACHED
Time World, July 23, 2013
Nearly three weeks after Egypt’s military forced the country’s President Mohamed Morsi out of office and jailed him and officials of his Muslim Brotherhood party, the explosive reaction on Cairo’s streets has brought death and turmoil— and in another country more than 1,200 miles away, an uneasy sense of loss. Qatar, the tiny gas-rich peninsula in the Persian Gulf, had poured nearly $5 billion into Morsi’s government in its one short year in office, propping up Egypt’s teetering economy, and investing — or so it thought — in a lasting relationship with the Arab world’s most populous nation.
It was not to be. In just the latest blow to Qatar’s influence peddling, the emirate has lost a key ally, and with it, its clout. Back in 2011, Qatar seemed a crucial player, willing to invest its immense wealth in the revolutions sweeping the region, and its global clout to persuade the Arab League and the U.N. to back an international bombing campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya. Protesters in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt carried Qatar’s maroon-and-white flags in tribute, and banners reading “Thank you al-Jazeera,” since the Qatar-owned news network had trumpeted their cause.
Two and a half years on, the contrast is stark. Protesters have regularly burned Qatar’s flag alight in Tahrir Square, enraged by its strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and earlier this month, the Egyptian military rounded up 28 of the channel’s staff in Cairo and hounded its correspondent from a press conference, claiming that al-Jazeera endangered Egypt’s national security….
With billions of its petrodollars to gamble on the region’s conflicts, Qatar is clearly under no budgetary constraints. But the same can be said for its oil-rich neighbors — and in Egypt, the bitter political battle is shaping up as a contest for influence between old rivals in the Gulf. Since the Egyptian military forced Morsi out of power and installed an interim government nearly three weeks ago, money has poured in from the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have jointly committed about $12 billion, dwarfing Qatar’s $5 billion aid package to the Muslim Brotherhood last year, and making the U.S.’s yearly $1.5 billion to Egypt’s military look suddenly insignificant. That could mean dwindling clout for the U.S., especially as Washington has not intervened in the biggest conflict in the region, Syria, says Shadi Hamid, research director for the Brookings Institution in Doha. “The [Obama] Administration has very little interest in playing a big role in the region,” he says. “Their threats are no longer credible.” By contrast, Hamid says, “the fact that the Saudis, UAE and Kuwaitis have committed $12 billion means they will have most leverage going forward. They want influence with the new political order.”
The first signs of a potential shift in Qatari policy came on June 24, when Qatar’s Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, handed over power to his son Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, 33, in an act that stunned people in other Gulf countries, whose leaders invariably hold on to power for life. Hamad had named Tamim his heir apparent in 2003, and last month said he thought it was time for Tamim and a new generation to “shoulder the responsibility with their dynamic potential and creative thoughts.”
Qataris have hailed the transition as seamless. Traveling around Doha last week in torpid midsummer heat, I heard several officials boast that the only shift was that they had swapped the old and new Emirs’ photographs on the wall, so that Tamim now occupies the more important left position.
But the change could involve more than a shift in decor. Analysts in Doha believe Tamim could downscale Qatar’s heavy involvement in Middle East conflicts, pointing as evidence to his first speech as Emir, when he said, “We as Arabs refuse to divide Arab societies on a sectarian basis” — an apparent reference to the criticism that Qatar’s interventions have intensified Shi‘ite-Sunni violence in several parts of the region. Judging from reports, the Qataris have been reliable supporters of more radical Sunni factions across the Arab world — at least until now. On his third day on the job, the new young Emir dismissed his father’s veteran Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who was also Qatar’s Foreign Minister and a member of the ruling clan, and had been the key interlocutor with the U.S. in critical conflicts around Africa and the Middle East.
For Qataris, the change could be welcome. In unguarded moments, some say that foreign conflicts are less important to them than what is happening at home, and that after years of rocketing growth, Qatar needs to focus on streamlining its way of doing business, in a country where most decisions are made by a handful of men. “With Sheik Tamim being our age, he might better represent our generation,” says Khelifa Al-Misnad, 33, who obtained a law degree at the University of Texas at Austin and now runs a law firm in Doha. “It is new blood, new energy, new vision.”…
That retreat may prove costly for the rebellion in Syria. President Bashar Assad’s forces have consolidated gains in recent months, as rebel groups fracture into deadly rivalries and as the U.S. and Britain stall on sending weapons to the rebels. Qatar’s sheiks, who broke ties with Assad soon after the war erupted in 2011, are crucial backers of Syria’s opposition and rebel fighters, supplying millions in aid to refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and arming rebel commanders. As TIME documented in May, Qatar was behind a pipeline conveying heavy weaponry to the rebels from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals in Libya. The New York Times reported in June that four Qatari cargo planes had stopped in Libya earlier this year, three in Tripoli and one in Benghazi, before traveling to Qatar’s military base, and then on to Turkey. Effectively, the planes were collecting stores of weapons to drop off with the rebel commanders.
Such support is crucial — and Syria’s opposition is keen to lock it in, now that Qatar has a new ruler. After Tamim’s coronation last month, Syria’s opposition ambassador to Qatar, Nizar al-Hrakey (Qatar expelled Assad’s envoy in 2011) stood in line at the royal palace to offer his congratulations. But the real purpose was to plead for him to keep his father’s Syrian policy in place. “We had a few moments together when we spoke, I wished him well and told him I hoped for continuation,” al-Hrakey said, sitting in his air-conditioned office in a villa in Doha’s diplomatic district, which opened last February as the official Syrian embassy. Al-Hrakey said Qatar’s Emir “reassured me that they would help Syrian people,” and that the new Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah had told him “that he would support Syria until the fall of the regime.”
To the surprise of many, though, the embattled Assad regime has now outlasted the rule of Qatar’s recently retired Emir. The planeloads of weapons and millions of dollars sent from this tiny state are a sign, perhaps, that Doha bit off more than it can chew.
Daniel R. DePetris
The National Interest, July 16, 2013
It is often assumed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most adamant about arming Syria’s fractious rebel movement. But there is growing evidence that clerics and opposition politicians in Kuwait have also been stepping up their own efforts in an attempt to collect as much cash for Bashar al-Assad’s opponents as possible. Millions of dollars in Kuwaiti dinars have reportedly been flown from Kuwait to Turkey and Jordan, where the cash is then distributed to the various branches of the Syrian resistance movement. “There is a great amount of sympathy on the part of the Kuwaiti people to provide any kind of assistance to the Syrian people whether inside or outside Syria,” Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah told Reuters.
Along with tens of millions of people in the Arab world, the conflict, which has crossed the threshold of one hundred thousand dead, including women and the smallest of children, has torn at the heartstrings of ordinary citizens in the small Gulf Arab sheikhdom. The only difference, it seems, is that the Kuwaiti government is perfectly content with going its own way instead of following the lead of its Saudi and Qatari neighbors. Why rely on other states, they reason, when one can contribute independently and with no strings attached?
That job, it appears, has been undertaken by powerful individuals in Kuwait, including religious figures and former parliamentarians—many of whom hold great sway over some segments of the population, despite the country’s pro-Western leanings. One Salafist group in Kuwait, the Great Kuwait Campaign, has been so successful in raising money for Syrian rebel groups that twelve thousand Syrian rebels could now be fully armed as a result of their pledges. For an opposition movement that has constantly complained about being underfunded and underequipped, the donation campaign from the Kuwaiti group is a rare but welcome development.
Dr. Waleed al-Tabtabai, a former Kuwaiti member of parliament and a man integrally involved in the fundraising, wants to go a step further. Instead of delivering cash, why not deliver what the rebels need the most: heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles? Those shipments, while applauded by the Free Syrian Army, would certainly arise anger and suspicion in Washington and in Europe, where arming the anti-Assad fighters with such advanced weaponry has long been used as a reason to act prudently and cautiously.
In addition to exacerbating the violence in Syria, the Kuwaiti effort to supply the insurgency with more money and arms will no doubt give the United States, Europe and the United Nations another reason to worry. Where would the weapons go? Who would monitor their distribution? And how can there be any certainty that antiaircraft weapons would not be used for purposes other than targeting Bashar al-Assad’s MIGs and helicopters?
Unlike assistance that has been provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, much of which is now closely coordinated with the United States, Great Britain, France, Turkey and Jordan, the money being sent from private donors in Kuwait is outside official channels set up by the Friends of Syria group. Kuwaiti clerics and MPs who hold some connection with Islamist movements are doing much of the door knocking and fundraising. By virtue of these Islamist leanings, it may be safe to assume that most of the funds are being delivered to the types of Syrian factions that the international community is most worried about. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Al Qaeda in Iraq are three of the most powerful, but three of the most extreme.
If President Barack Obama found it difficult to intervene on behalf of Syrian rebel forces a few months ago, news that the private donors in Kuwait are raising money and trying to pump advanced weapons into the conflict—perhaps with the quiet consent of the Kuwaiti government—will increase that tension to a new level.
As the Syrian conflict continues to grind on and as the United States gets more involved militarily, those who want to push Bashar al-Assad out need to answer a tricky question: how do you defeat Assad’s regime without empowering the very people that are the most likely take Syria’s politics, economy and society backward? Given the world’s reactive policy towards the war, it doesn’t look like the United States or its allies have been able to find an easy answer.
Daniel R. DePetris is a researcher at Wikistrat and an independent analyst.
Israel as a Gulf State: Malcolm Lowe, Gatestone Institute, July 29, 2013—It is a longstanding complaint that Israel is unfairly harassed in those international forums that deal with human rights. On the other hand, countries that are too big to harass, such as Russian and China, or that are oil rich, such as the Gulf states, get away with anything.
Oman Has Its Cake and Eats It Too — For Now: Daniel Wagner & Giorgio Cafiero, Real Clear World, July 29, 2013—Oman's primary foreign policy objectives appear to be to ensure stability in the Arabian Gulf and maintain independence from Saudi Arabia. For decades, a pillar of Muscat's foreign policy has been to balance its alliances with the U.S., its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, and Iran.
Mideast's Real Battle: Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar: Jonathan Tepperman, New York Times, July 12, 2013—In 15 years of thinking, reporting and writing about global affairs, I’ve come to the conclusion (after plenty of false starts) that often the best way to understand and explain big events is not by focusing on them directly, but by approaching them through smaller stories.
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