In Gaza war, Qatar revisits role as regional mediator

After the release Friday of two Americans held by Hamas, officials in Israel distributed images of the women walking hand-in-hand to freedom with an Israeli envoy, and U.S. authorities shared photos of the pair talking by phone to President Biden. The Persian Gulf nation of Qatar was where it preferred to be: a bit out of the picture but very much in the mix.

Over the years, the tiny, energy-rich state has leveraged its extensive diplomatic relationships — including with militant groups like Hamas and the Taliban, and U.S. adversaries including Russia — to negotiate delicate issues during international conflicts.

The release of the Americans, Judith Raanan and her daughter Natalie Raanan, of Evanston, Ill., marked the third time in two months that Qatar’s mediation has played a role in facilitating negotiations between bitter adversaries. In September, Qatar helped secure the release of five Americans held by Iran. Earlier this month, Qatar was in the middle of an effort to free Ukrainian children held by Russia.

The Raanans were the first of more than 200 captives believed held by Hamas since the militant group’s deadly attack on Israel two weeks ago. Hamas said in a statement that they were released at the request of Qatari mediators for “humanitarian reasons.”

The mediation that led to the release of the Ranaans was part of an effort Qatar said it hoped would “lead to the release of all civilian hostages from every nationality” held by Hamas, Majid Ansari, a spokesman for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement Friday. It came after “days of continuous communication between all parties involved,” he added, saying the effort aimed at “de-escalating the current crisis.”

Why does Qatar have leverage?

Qatar, a strong supporter of the Palestinians as well as regional Islamist movements, has maintained ties with Hamas going back nearly two decades. In the past, Qatar tried to mediate disputes between Hamas and the rival Palestinian Fatah movement in the West Bank. In 2012, Qatar’s then-emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first head of state to visit Hamas-controlled Gaza, pledging hundreds of millions of dollars of aid. Hamas leaders have been hosted in Doha, Qatar’s capital, for years.

Qatar has also kept low-level relations with Israel at a time when other Gulf nations were firmly opposed to any outreach. In the 1990s, Qatar allowed an Israeli trade office as the country’s only outpost in the Gulf.

After taking over from his father, the current emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has declined to follow some of Qatar’s neighbors in fully normalizing relations with Israel. Qatari officials said that such a step would only follow peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

What are Qatar’s other mediation initiatives?

A gas-rich state of 2.7 million people, Qatar has tried to exert influence in regional and global affairs, including through mediation efforts that began in earnest in the mid-2000s, according to Sultan Barakat, a professor at the Qatar Foundation’s Hamid Bin Khalifa University. Barakat wrote a 2014 paper about those initiatives, including early attempts to mediate in Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan and between Israel and Hamas.

“Prior to 2011, these efforts produced mixed results,” he wrote. Beginning that year, as pro-democracy protests spread around the Middle East, Qatar was less noticed for its diplomacy and more closely associated with support for the Arab Spring uprisings as well as Islamist groups involved in the revolts. These interventions earned Qatar the ire of regional powers, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Tensions with neighbors came to a head in 2017. Saudi Arabia and others — angered by Doha’s ties with militant groups, Iran and its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera news channel — imposed a years-long economic blockade of Qatar, cutting links by land, sea and air.

What are the benefits and risks to Qatar?

The diplomatic forays part of a package of “soft power” initiatives Qatar has used to buttress its global standing and distinguish itself from regional rivals, an effort that includes hosting campuses of American universities, and supporting sports teams, including staging the 2022 World Cup.

The mediation — especially when it benefits the United States — is also used as a guard against some of the criticism Qatar has received for supporting groups considered terrorist entities by Western countries.

Qatar, which has maintained relations with Afghanistan’s hard line Taliban movement for years, played a key role in 2021 assisting the United States evacuate its citizens and allies during the chaotic American withdrawal from the country.

If Qatar stopped its engagement with the Taliban, Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, said at the time, “we are going to leave a vacuum.”

“The question is,” he added, “who is going to fill this vacuum?”

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