WASHINGTON — When it comes to the latest Arab peace initiative, two questions are circulating in Washington: Why Qatar? And why now?
The three answers: Because Qatar is rich, it is scared and why not?
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, the Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, in recent weeks has driven the revivification of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, moderating it slightly to hew closer to the outlines touted by the Obama administration since 2011.
The updated version, outlined by Hamad in remarks to reporters following his meeting April 29 with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, pulls back from the 2002 demand that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders in exchange for comprehensive peace.
Instead, Hamad proposed “comparable and mutual agreed minor swaps of the land” — a formulation that opens the door to Israel’s retention of several major settlement blocs. Hamad also did not mention the Palestinian “right of return” and the division of Jerusalem, elements of the original Arab initiative that had led to its rejection by the Israeli government.
Qatar, the fabulously wealthy Persian Gulf state that is host to the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, hasn’t been known until recently for grabbing onto thorny diplomatic challenges. So what does Hamad hope to gain?
The Qatari Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but experts and officials say that Qatar is wealthy enough to do what it likes and, as an autocracy concerned for its survival in a region roiling with revolution, is driven to make friends and demonstrate its usefulness.
“For a small country, they’re throwing money around, organizing diplomatic events, trying to shape a range of issues, much of it related to the Middle East uprising,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank considered close to the Obama administration. “It’s rich, it’s small, it lacks the inner turmoil of other countries.”
“It’s one of the Middle Eastern countries, he said, “that are more internally stable and have more resources.”
Prior to unveiling the revised peace plan, Hamad, a distant cousin of the Qatari emir, was honored by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, an organization that received $2.5 million to $5 million from the government of Qatar in 2012, according to Politico.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, the Saban Center’s director, said Qatar for years had accrued influence through such uses of “soft power” — the generous dispensation of money and assistance — coupled with its ownership of Al Jazeera, the region’s most influential news outlet. When uprisings swept the Middle East at the beginning of 2011, Qatar was able to step into a vacuum left by the toppled dictators, she said.
“It vaulted Qatar into a much more prominent role in regional politics because of the loss of Mubarak,” said Wittes, referring to the deposed Egyptian president. “Its regional assistance and Al Jazeera have allowed it to play a larger role in how the awakening is viewed.”
Backing winners, whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the forces that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, also lends credibility — and insurance — to a regime that is itself autocratic, Katulis said.
“If they win as many as friends as possible, get in early on the ground floor, they’ll be all the more influential,” he said.
A State Department official played down Qatar’s role in reviving the Arab peace bid, noting that the new plan formally emerged from the Arab League. And yet he emphasized that the Obama administration is focused mainly on returning the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table and hopes the peace initiative can help them get there.
“It’s a sign that the Arab League is a constructive member in the process,” the official said. “The regional partners have a role, but our major focus is getting the Palestinians and Israelis back to the table for direct talks.”
So far, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Israel is less than thrilled about the new initiative. An Israeli official confirmed that Netanyahu remains as unenthusiastic about the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations as he was in 2011, when President Obama’s proposal based on those lines precipitated a small crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.
Israelis are also skeptical of Qatar because of its support for Hamas, the terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip. The country’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first foreign leader to visit the strip last October.
“On the diplomatic front, Qatar publicly claims to support Israeli-Palestinian peace while making certain to undermine it in every possible way,” Seth Mandel wrote last week in Commentary, the neoconservative journal.
But Wittes said Qatar’s relationship with Hamas could be seen as a benefit. Hamas is a mainstay of Palestinian politics, and Qatar could help influence the group to moderate.
“If obstruction of peace was Hamas’s role as spoiler,” she said, “you have to look at the potential for Qatar as a positive influence.”