MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
Qatar’s two-faced approach to hostage diplomacy divides Israeli officials, American Jewish leaders
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent leaked criticism of Qatar has highlighted a delicate dynamic regarding Doha, Hamas’ funder but also the channel for hostage negotiations
The conundrum over Qatar that the Israeli government, Israelis, the U.S. and American Jews find themselves in — exert maximum pressure on the Hamas benefactors to win the release of the hostages, treat them with kid gloves or a little of each — is so knotty that perhaps only metaphors can grasp the complexity of it.
A senior official at a major American Jewish organization reached for a metaphor from biology: Qatar and Hamas are locked in a “symbiotic relationship,” one feeding off the other, so to speak. “It would be foolish to minimize the benefits of this symbiotic relationship in this moment of crisis with the lives of the hostages hanging in the balance,” the official told Jewish Insider.
The executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington Ron Halber leaned on the psychological concept of “cognitive dissonance” when he addressed a “gathering” last week outside the Qatari Embassy in Washington, D.C. He said the event was meant “to thank the Qataris and at the same time to press them to push Hamas. Those two things are not in conflict: You’ve done a good job, you really need to do more of a good job.” Even calling the event a gathering — rather than a protest or demonstration — was a sign of the issue’s sensitivity: Qatar the bad guy, Qatar the potential good guy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent leaked criticism of Qatar — albeit without the rhetorical flourish — has brought this delicate dynamic regarding Qatar to the fore.
In a leaked audio recording of Netanyahu in a meeting with hostages’ relatives, he expressed criticism of the Gulf state shared by many Israelis and supporters. Yet many of the leading voices calling to release the 136 hostages held in Gaza – including Netanyahu himself until last week – have been hesitant to speak out against Qatar.
Netanyahu called Qatar “more problematic” as a mediator than the U.N. or Red Cross, and said he was “very angry” at the U.S. for squandering what he viewed as opportunities to up the pressure on Doha.
Though Netanyahu has “no illusions” about Qatar, he said he “can use any factor for now that will help me bring [the hostages] home.”
Netanyahu and his military secretary, Avi Gil, said they expect Qatar to provide proof that the hostages received the medication Israel sent via France in a Doha-mediated deal; a source in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed to Jewish Insider on Tuesday that nearly two weeks after the medicine entered Gaza, they have not received that confirmation.
Responding to Netanyahu’s leaked comments, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry accused Netanyahu of “undermining the mediation process for reasons that appear to serve his political career instead of prioritizing saving the lives of innocents, including Israeli hostages.” The thinly veiled threat to the hostages was the second time that week Qatar said airing criticism publicly could “potentially affect the sensitive and ongoing efforts to bring hostages back to their families.”
“I will not give up on even one lane of pressure on Hamas or those who can pressure Hamas to bring back our hostages,” he said in the press conference. “Qatar hosts the heads of Hamas; it also funds Hamas; it has leverage on Hamas…They placed themselves as mediators – so start proving it and bring back our hostages and bring them the medicines.”
As Netanyahu’s “very angry” comment would indicate, he is at odds with the White House on the topic of Qatar. Secretary of State Tony Blinken “expressed gratitude for Qatar’s indispensable mediation efforts, especially since October 7,” in a readout following a meeting with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, one in a long series of Biden administration statements thanking Doha.
His remarks are also at odds with his government’s approach. National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi praised Qatar in October as “an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions,” drawing public and media ire.
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett responded that the government is making “a grave moral and practical error,” and that “Qatar is the enemy itself.” Yet New York-based restaurateur and former Qatar lobbyist Joey Allaham said that weeks later, Bennett told him that the Shin Bet asked him to stop publicly criticizing Qatar. Another attendee at the lunch in which Bennett made the remark confirmed what he said, but Bennett’s office declined to comment.
The president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Yigal Carmon, who has been calling for greater pressure on Qatar in American and Israeli media for months, was unimpressed with Netanyahu’s recent outspokenness on Qatar. Carmon told JI that the prime minister and Doha “have been in criminal cooperation,” referring to the billions of dollars Netanyahu allowed Qatar to funnel into Gaza over the past decade.
“And now he talks about pressure?” Carmon scoffed. “What is he doing in Gaza right now? He’s letting Qatari money fund all the relief [for Gazans], which is stolen by Hamas. It’s the same thing all over again. It sustains the terrorists and the tunnels used to kill Israeli soldiers…The blood is on Netanyahu’s hands.”
Carmon called Netanyahu’s reported past statement that allowing Qatar to support Hamas will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state a product of “degenerate narcissism, thinking that he can outmaneuver everyone. Don’t create an alternative to a Palestinian state that’s worse than a Palestinian state. It’s utter stupidity.”
He also noted that Netanyahu blocked Communication Minister Shlomo Karhi’s move to close Qatar-owned Al Jazeera’s offices in Israel, such that the prime minister is not allowing Israel to use its own lever of pressure — however minor — on Doha.
“Only when the Qataris understand that their existence is on the line will they pressure Hamas, and then the hostages will come back by the busload. Why would Hamas do that for Qatar? Because Qatar is their lifeline. If there’s no Qatar, there’s no Hamas…The answer to the hostage problem, the end of the war, global terrorism is to stop the Al-Thani family,” Carmon said.
Netanyahu was not the only one to criticize Qatar more openly last week. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington held a “gathering,” which they were cautious not to call a protest or demonstration, outside the Qatari embassy in Washington, featuring members of Congress among other speakers. JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber said the event was meant “to thank the Qataris and at the same time to press them to push Hamas. Those two things are not in conflict: You’ve done a good job, you really need to do more of a good job.”
Two days later, however, about 40 Israelis living in the D.C. area gathered in front of the embassy in a more explicit protest, chanting “Qatar is Hamas,” with speakers saying the Gulf state is responsible for the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and noting its payments to the terrorist group and sponsorship of Al-Jazeera, which airs antisemitic and anti-Israel messages.
Alan Gross, a former U.S. government contractor imprisoned in Cuba for five years, spoke at the JCRC gathering outside the Qatari embassy and favored making sure Doha knows “that people are concerned about the role they’ve been playing with their client, Hamas.”
“We’ve used enough diplomacy with Qatar,” he told JI. “They have the leaders of Hamas in Doha in their billion-dollar estates.”
The Qataris “need to exercise greater influence over their client so they can facilitate a hostage release on a humanitarian basis. It is in no one’s interest to keep these people hostage, certainly not in Hamas’s,” Gross said.
Gross recounted that while he was imprisoned, the Jewish community held a weekly vigil across from the Cuban Embassy calling for his release.
“[Cuba] didn’t like that at all,” he said. “It brought attention to them that they didn’t want to have. I can’t imagine any embassy that would feel differently.”
The JCRC in New York and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa plan to follow up with “gatherings” of their own at the Qatari diplomatic missions in their cities on Friday “to urge the Qatari government to use its considerable leverage over Hamas leaders to finalize and implement a [hostage] deal as quickly as possible.”
Yet the Hostages Families’ Forum and major Jewish organizations have shown reticence to turn their criticism towards Doha.
Hostages’ relatives met with the Qatari prime minister in Washington on Monday, and the Families’ Forum subsequently released a statement that they “extend our heartfelt thanks for the efforts of the State of Qatar to date.”
“We expressed our sincere hope that Qatar will continue to lead the coordination of the new deal that will release all the remaining hostages. Qatar’s continued commitment to resolving this humanitarian challenge is crucial to end the suffering of all our families,” the forum stated.
Emily Moatti, the leader of the forum’s diplomatic team and a former Labor MK, told JI that the forum “thinks that the only way hostages will be released is through negotiations, and as unfortunate as it may be – we would prefer Egypt – Qatar is totally a partner in this.”
Moatti said the public may want to turn its attention to Qatar because “they feel like they have to do something,” but that “if the choices are to talk or to attack, I prefer to talk.”
The former lawmaker also said that the issue of Qatar keeping Hamas afloat is a geopolitical issue that is “much bigger than the hostages.”
Earlier this month, the Hostages’ Families Forum and the American Jewish Committee held an invitation-only, closed to media briefing for Washington-area Jewish community officials that reflected the dynamic among the major organizations dealing with the hostages issue.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross spoke in favor of pressure on Qatar, which he said brought about the release of 110 hostages in November. He said Qatar cannot be a major non-NATO U.S. ally while hosting Hamas, and that one hostage deal in what was 104 days at the time does not demonstrate benefits to that relationship.
“Maybe [Hamas] should understand that Qatar will break relations with Hamas if they don’t prove it,” Ross told attendees, referring to Hamas releasing the hostages. “I would like to see Qatar exercise more of its pressure on Hamas.”
Ross also advocated for pressure on Qatar at a rally for the hostages in December. He said that “military pressure is one of the reasons that now Qatar is again talking about the possibility of a deal.”
“Qatar,” Ross added, “cannot simply be a messenger or a neutral mediator. Qatar has a relationship [with the U.S.] and if we want to show there’s a benefit to having that relationship, it has to put pressure on Hamas…All those political leaders of Hamas that are in Qatar, they need to know they won’t be able to stay…Qatar can apply pressure.”
All the other speakers at the closed-door briefing, however, opposed pressure on Qatar. Roger Carstens, the Biden administration’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, said: “Maybe we can put more pressure on Qatar, but they are doing all that we are asking,” according to two attendees. One attendee told JI that he understood Carstens’ statement to mean that the U.S. has not asked Qatar to throw Hamas leaders out of Doha or stop funding the terrorist organization.
Mickey Bergman, the head of the Richardson Center, who has been advising hostages’ relatives, did not disclose in the briefing that he receives major funding from Qatar.
Bergman said that while pressure on Qatar would mean making Doha choose between Hamas and the U.S., realistically, the only way to get the hostages out fast is for Israel to give in to Hamas’ demands, which include ending the war and releasing all Palestinian terrorists from prison. In addition, attendees said that Bergman called the hostages an asset for the government, who say that extending the war will help bring them back, while he disagrees with that assertion.
When audience members asked how to help the hostages, AJC CEO Ted Deutch and Carstens called to raise awareness and Deutch suggested that all Jewish organizations put “Bring them home” on their websites. Bergman called to build a consensus for the Israeli government to release all Palestinian prisoners and pause the war as the primary way to get hostages back, according to attendees.
One attendee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the briefing was supposed to be closed to media, felt that the speakers all agreed on pressuring the Israeli government, but not on pressuring Qatar or the U.S.: “The pressure is on Israel to end the war. That’s basically the Hamas position.”
He also took issue with the focus on raising awareness as opposed to further actions, saying that organizations have helped hostages’ families gain “access to the highest levels of the U.S. government…but they have no strategy. They just expect that telling their stories will move people to solve the problem, and that’s wrong.”
The AJC said that “it is unfortunate that a participant chose to comment publicly on what was discussed. But it must be noted that the families’ tireless advocacy in Washington and other capitals around the world has served as a constant and critical reminder to public officials that the release of all hostages remains a top priority. AJC is committed to and will do whatever it can to help the families realize that goal.”
Allaham, who has close experience with the Qataris as a former lobbyist who arranged meetings between top Qatari officials with influential Republicans and prominent American Jewish figures starting in 2017, including taking them on trips to Doha, favors pressure on the Gulf state to release the hostages.
“I know the Qataris well, and I would bet all the money in the world that part of their conditions for getting involved [in hostage negotiations] is not to badmouth [Qatar]. They care a lot about their reputation; that comes first for them,” Allaham said.
Allaham said that “Qatar wants to dance at every wedding” by supporting Hamas while being a major non-NATO ally of the U.S. and negotiating the hostage release, but that the Emir of Qatar’s family is very much on the side of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“I see [Qatar-owned] Al Jazeera news in Arabic,” Allaham, who was born in Damascus, said. “It’s their mouthpiece. It’s Hamas news. It’s horrendous…They deny everything that happened on October 7.”
Allaham said he doubts the Qataris are mediating in good faith.
Still, he said, “if you’re stuck, you have to deal with the devil. I’m a father and I would exhaust every option to get my kids out, even if I had to tell the devil he looks like an angel.”
Allaham agreed with Netanyahu that the U.S. government has to call Qatar out: “At the end of the day, the only thing they fear is the White House.”
Carmon said that hostages’ families should not believe that there is no alternative to Qatar. He said that the other conduits to Hamas for both humanitarian aid and hostage talks could be Egypt and Jordan.
“The difference between Egypt and Qatar, which is very meaningful, is that Egypt hates the Muslim Brotherhood and put Al Jazeera reporters in prison,” he said.
The MEMRI founder argued that Jewish organizations and the hostages’ families are not pressuring Qatar, because they take their cues from the Israeli government.
“The key to saving the hostages is pressuring Qatar in a massive way,” Carmon said, referring to political pressure, as well as economic pressure and cyberattacks. Specifically, Carmon said the U.S. should threaten to relocate CENTCOM, and that “even discussing it will scare the Qataris shitless.” He also suggested that private actors can undertake cyberattacks on Qatar – “like those who took revenge after World War II” – if the government doesn’t do it.
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations CEO William Daroff told JI that American Jewish organizations are following the lead of the U.S. government.
“I think there’s a recognition that the American government’s opinion of Qatar is very important, and our ability to influence the American government, therefore, can have an impact on how Qatar acts,” Daroff said.
One executive at a Jewish advocacy organization said Jewish leaders “mostly want to squeeze Qatar to do the right thing.” But, the executive noted, “I think there is also a recognition that our piece of this is very small, and so the chance of success of us actually changing Qatari behavior is small, while the chances of us f**king up are potentially big in a way that would not be positive as it relates to the hostages, as it relates to bilateral relations, to trilateral relations.”
The situation with Qatar, the executive continued, is “complicated because they’re serving a useful purpose, which is being an escape valve and a conduit, but the fact that the right hand is stirring things up such that the left hand has business is outrageous.”
Another senior official at a major American Jewish organization acknowledged that “Qatar did not create, but it has fed and protected the monster of Islamist extremism for years,” but at the same time, Qatar “has the unique ability to negotiate with that monster” and must be dealt with.
The organizations are currently hesitant to call out Qatar because the Qataris “are the only ones who have the unique ability they created for themselves…to have high-level contact and any serious sway with a terrorist organization that is holding 136 hostages.”
“It would be foolish to minimize the benefits of this symbiotic relationship in this moment of crisis with the lives of the hostages hanging in the balance,” the official said.
If Qatar is the tool that can bring about the release of the hostages, he added, then that is the tool that should be used.
“Exposing the tool’s ugly history and other aspects of that tool’s behavior and focusing public attention on that at this moment would be counterproductive,” he said.
Asked if he thinks the Qataris are acting in good faith, the official said, “The U.S. and Israel are counting on them to be serious in trying to get the hostages out.”
Senior national correspondent Gabby Deutch contributed reporting.