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Israel hopes Gulf rift will ‘intensify Hamas’ isolation’

Netanyahu is eager to capitalise on the crisis to make the Palestinian issue disappear and isolate Hamas, analysts say

Al Jazeera – 15 June 2017

Israel is seeking to exploit the rift between a Saudi-led bloc of Arab states and Qatar to advance its strategic interests in the region both against the Palestinian movement Hamas and against Iran, according to Israeli analysts.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar more than a week ago, accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and being too close to Iran. US President Donald Trump’s visit to the region last month appears to have spurred the campaign against Doha.

This week Israel added fuel to the fire by issuing its own threats against Qatar.

Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman vowed to close down Al Jazeera’s bureau in Jerusalem, in what would amount to shuttering its coverage of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reported to be consulting with the Israeli security services about how to justify the decision.

Analysts said Israel had been emboldened in its hardline stance by the recent decisions of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to close their own bureaus of the Qatar-based network.

According to Lieberman, Israeli interests “overlap” with those of Arab states on the issue of Al Jazeera. The channel, he said, was “an incitement machine. It’s pure propaganda, of the worst variety, in the style of Nazi Germany.”

Shared interests

But Lieberman and Netanyahu have also seized the moment to make explicit other shared interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel has joined Riyadh in accusing Qatar of siding with “terror” primarily as a way to weaken Iran and Hamas, Israel’s most troublesome regional opponents, the analysts observed.

Qatar has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Hamas-ruled Gaza to alleviate a mounting humanitarian crisis there, provoked by a decade-long Israeli blockade and a series of military attacks.

Until now, the aid had been channelled to Gaza with Israel’s tacit consent, said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst and an aide to Ehud Barak when he served as Israel’s prime minister at the start of the Second Intifada.

But since Trump entered the White House, the Israeli government had appeared readier to turn the screws on Hamas, Alpher told Al Jazeera. “Israel senses that Hamas is now too weak and isolated to strike back.”

Doha has also maintained diplomatic relations with Iran, with which it shares a large gas field.

Fear of Iran’s influence 

Israel accuses Tehran of sponsoring “terror” against it, including by arming Hezbollah, a Lebanese movement on its northern border. Hezbollah operations forced Israel to pull its occupying forces out of south Lebanon in 2000.

Riyadh, meanwhile, opposes the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the region, of which Hamas is a part, as well as Iran’s efforts to bolster a Shia bloc that threatens the influence of a Saudi-led bloc of Sunni Arab states.

As the rift with Qatar broke last week, Lieberman told the Israeli parliament: “Even Arab states understand that the risk to this region is not Israel, but rather terrorism. This is an opportunity to collaborate.”

Netanyahu echoed his defence minister, saying the Arab states “see us as a partner and not an enemy”.

In particular, Netanyahu is eager to capitalise on the crisis as a way to avoid being dragged into new peace talks by the Trump administration. Highlighting Palestinian “terror” – and Iranian meddling – is a tried-and-tested way to deflect diplomatic pressure.

“Israel’s strategy is to marginalise the Palestinian issue,” Jeff Halper, an Israeli foreign policy analyst, told Al Jazeera. “The signals from Saudi Arabia are that they are willing to normalise relations with Israel, even while the Palestinian problem remains unaddressed.”

He said Israel hoped the emerging alliance with Riyadh would sideline the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, which embarrassed Israel by offering a regional solution to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Israel will now try to redirect attention to other issues, from Iran to energy and weapons. Anything to make the Palestinian issue disappear,” said Halper.

Threat of US sanctions

The emerging ties between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States were indicated by an Al Jazeera investigation this week. It revealed that 10 US legislators, financed by Israel lobby groups, had recently introduced a bill in Congress threatening US sanctions against Qatar if it supported Palestinian “terror”.

The bill demands that Doha end its “financial and military support” for Hamas-ruled Gaza. The US legislators’ position aligns closely with the interests of Israel and Egypt, both of which have blockaded Gaza.

Israel wishes to keep the Hamas rule in Gaza weak, as well as isolated from the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank. Cairo, meanwhile, wants Hamas isolated from its sister organisation the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt’s military rulers removed from power in a military coup in 2013.

Noticeably, Saud Arabia has begun making the same demand of Qatar, calling on it to stop financing Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the first time the Saudis have publicly adopted the US and Israeli definition of Hamas as a “terror organisation” rather than a resistance movement.

At stake is Doha’s continuing investment in rebuilding homes and roads devastated by Israel’s repeated attacks. Such support has proved a lifeline for the tiny enclave.

Hamas ‘friendless’

In recent years Qatar has also served as a base for Hamas’ exiled leadership, with few other countries willing to host it.

Alpher said Israel’s leadership hoped that the Gulf rift would intensify Hamas’ isolation. “Israel will be happy if this crisis leaves Hamas even more friendless in the region,” he said.

In addition to trying to limit Qatar’s humanitarian activities in Gaza, Israel is helping the Palestinian Authority further damage its Hamas rivals.

Electricity to the enclave is down to a few hours a day after the PA’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, refused to pay Israel’s bill to supply power to Gaza. Abbas has also stopped paying salaries to many thousands of PA workers.

Trump ‘judge and jury’

Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think-tank based in Washington and Brussels, said both Netanyahu and Abbas were taking advantage of the new political climate in Washington.

He told Al Jazeera: “The stark message from Trump and Riyadh is, ‘Now you must choose. Are you with the bad guys or the good guys?’ Netanyahu understands that Trump has set himself up as judge and jury.”

By balancing relations with a variety of states in the region, including Iran, Qatar’s policy was considered “too grey” for Trump and Riyadh’s liking, observed Zalzberg.

Alpher said Israel had conflicting impulses towards Gaza. It wanted the humanitarian situation under control to avoid triggering another round of fighting with Hamas. But it also feared that Hamas might misuse any aid to replenish arms and build what Israel terms “terror tunnels”.

The tunnels proved a major problem for Israel when its troops invaded Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, allowing Hamas fighters to launch surprise attacks.

Overturning Iran deal

Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, said the efforts to break Qatar’s ties with Hamas would most likely force Hamas into the arms of Tehran.

“Without Qatar’s help, Hamas has to turn to Iran,” he told Al Jazeera. “From Israel’s point of view, that creates a clearer picture, painting Hamas and Iran as different faces of the same ‘terror’.”

Ben Caspit, an Israeli journalist, recently quoted Israeli security sources saying that Trump had adopted Netanyahu’s approach on Iran, viewing it as “the head of the serpent and the source of regional terrorism”.

Netanyahu’s ultimate goal, said Gordon, was pressuring the Americans to overturn an Iran nuclear deal signed by Barack Obama in 2015. Both the Israeli government and Saudi Arabia vigorously opposed that agreement.

Netanyahu fears that, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, it would rival Israel’s nuclear arsenal and severely reduce Israel’s regional influence. Saudi Arabia similarly fears a nuclear-armed Iran would undermine its influence.

Instead, Netanyahu and the Saudis prefer that Iran be kept under severe sanctions, with an ever-present threat of military attack hanging over it.

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