For anyone who has been following Qatari foreign policy over the past decade, or has had a chance to read Article 7 of the country’s 2003 constitution, which explicitly states that the country should strive to be an international peacemaker, Doha’s recent attempts to mediate between Israel and Hamas should come as no surprise. Mediation has been the stock-in-trade of recent Qatari foreign policy; it made similar diplomatic forays in Yemen in 2007 and 2008, Lebanon in 2008, and Sudan in 2009 and 2010.
The political context underlying Qatar’s latest diplomatic intervention, however, has exposed the risks inherent in its broader strategy. Doha’s foray into Gaza comes amid a heated Saudi–Iranian proxy war across the Middle East and an ongoing dispute within an unprecedentedly polarized Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Qatar is a part. Although Qatar’s foreign policy has not changed, it is no longer going to be able to pose as a neutral arbiter.
Doha is clearly motivated by a belief that, at a time when the influence of traditional regional powers -- Egypt and Saudi Arabia above all -- is thought to be waning, it can gain ground on, or even surpass, its peers. Qatar’s goal has been to endorse and sponsor the rise of political Islamists (specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates), which it sees as the region’s largest and deepest political force, and thereby increase its own influence. Its public strategy for accomplishing that goal has been to present itself as a tireless mediator in the region’s most pressing conflicts.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have serious issues with Qatar’s regional politicking. Rather than an honest broker, they consider Doha an interloper intent on undermining the regional status quo -- and their political and security interests. Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani understands that these countries consider the Muslim Brotherhood a major political threat, and are doing everything they can to crush it. That is why he has taken measures to ensure that Qatar is not diplomatically isolated: He has partnered with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; kept Washington apprised of his diplomatic plans; stabilized relations with Iran; and improved ties with Oman. Moreover, Thani, like his father who preceded him as Qatar’s ruler, believes that the potential rewards of his assertive foreign policy outweigh the risks of alienating other regional players.
This is not the first time Qatar has dabbled in Palestinian politics. In October 2006, it mediated between Hamas and Fatah, although a year later Riyadh upstaged Doha by brokering the Mecca Agreement, which formed a Palestinian unity government, itself short-lived. Soon after the Syrian civil war started, Khalid Meshaal, Hamas’ political chief, departed Damascus, where he had been hosted by the Syrian government, and settled in Doha. From there, under the guidance of the Qatari leadership, Meshaal continued to coordinate his group’s political and military activities in Gaza.
But now, Qatar is openly seeking to take over Egypt’s traditional role as mediator between the Palestinians and Israel. Egyptian officials suspect that Hamas only rejected its recent ceasefire plan because Qatar claimed it could broker a better deal. Hamas (and Qatar) now claim that any ceasefire accord must include lifting of economic blockades imposed by Israel and Egypt on the Gaza Strip and a return to an understanding that ended the previous round of fighting in 2012, which promised to halt Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel and ease border crossings.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian military -- who already harbor a grudge against Qatar because it bankrolled Mohammed Morsi, the previous Egyptian president -- will not surrender the Palestinian file to Doha without a fight, especially as events in Gaza, which borders the Egyptian territory of Sinai, directly affect Egypt’s security. But Cairo’s political battle will be complicated by the fact that half the Egyptian people support the Muslim Brotherhood, and an even larger number sympathize with the Palestinian people’s suffering and support the opening of the Egyptian–Palestinian border.