The Israeli Interest in Ending the Blockade of Qatar

Jared Kushner’s role in the recent Qatar-GCC normalization is arguably its most noteworthy aspect. Given his profile and the context of his key role in the June 2017 Saudi-UAE-Bahrain blockade of Qatar in the first place, his support for ending it is not mere token diplomacy but an evolution of the Israeli geostrategic interests he worked in furtherance of.

Kushner, MbS and the Qatar blockade

Kushner coordinated the blockade using channels of personal contact with then-deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) of Saudi Arabia. The move took the US secretaries of State and Defense, then in Australia on an official visit, by surprise.

Bypassing the US foreign policy apparatus was typical practice for Kushner in his role in father-in-law Donald Trump’s presidency. A non-elected, non-career advisor, Kushner focused on securing a responsive and supportive White House for his family friend in Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly disliked the previous president Barack Obama.

From this perch, Kushner acted as Netanyahu’s point-man for contacts with GCC officials from the days of Trump’s election campaign. He was also the main architect of the GCC-backed US-Israeli ‘Deal of the Century’ plan on Palestine revealed in January 2020.

Israel sought to bring Gulf states into its orbit – and a more confrontational stance against Iran. This necessitated bypassing or even undercutting the rigidly-stable, security-oriented GCC status quo maintained by traditional US stakeholders such as the US military.

Blockading Qatar was step in this direction, focused on establishing a unilateral dominance for MbS over the GCC which would then be deployed to Israel’s advantage.

Israel’s Kushner-MbS experiment

MbS lead the public charge in imposing an air, land and sea blockade upon Doha despite it hosting the US’ largest Middle East air base at al Udeid since 1991. This exemplified the willingness of the leader of the largest Gulf Arab state to disregard US Gulf interests and – given Qatar’s historical reputation for defying the Saudi dictate in its foreign policy – to tie intra-GCC rivalries to Tel Aviv’s ambitions.

Leaning on Kushner’s support, MbS followed the siege of the Gulf state most resistant of Riyadh’s influence with a similar and rapid power-grab at home.

Weeks after the blockade began, King Salman forced his nephew and security services veteran Mohammed bin Nayef to relinquish his Crown Prince status to MbS.

Bin Nayef was a US favorite to succeed the ailing King Salman. He was close to the CIA owing to his work in the interior ministry against local al Qaeda networks, on good terms with the Emir of Qatar and popular with Saudi intelligence.

Thus, MbS’ rise continued denting US-Saudi ties, a trajectory Israel strongly supported with a view to leaving MbS looking toward it as his only real ally.

In late October 2017, Kushner flew unannounced to Saudi Arabia to help MbS jointly plan a mass-arrest of princes with policy positions who were rounded up and held in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel.

This ‘purge’ included an immediate quid pro quo from MbS to Israel. Included in the arrestees was Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, heir to pro-Saudi political dynasty. MbS had summoned Hariri to Riyadh on 3 November and forced him to publicly resign the next day as the purge began citing conflict with the Iran-allied Shia organization Hezbollah, Israel’s enemy in Lebanon. Hariri was reportedly also held at the Ritz Carlton.

Following Hariri’s resignation speech, widely analyzed as scripted, the Israeli Foreign Ministry leaked diplomatic cables to Israeli media revealing that Netanyahu had instructed his embassies worldwide to support the Saudis in the accusations against Hezbollah.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif immediately accused Israel – and Kushner specifically – of orchestrating the crisis in Lebanon. Citing senior Middle East diplomatic sources, foreign affairs analyst Mark Perry reported for The American Conservative on 27 November 2017 that the Hariri arrest ‘blindsided’ US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Kushner, who was informed of the planned arrest of Hariri, kept Tillerson in the dark regarding the Saudi move just as he had in the case of the Qatar blockade.

With the Kushner-MbS foreign policy model acting as Israel’s vehicle for geostrategic depth within the GCC, Israel found reason to back MbS’ maximalist stance toward Qatar under the general ambit of empowering the Crown Prince.

However, the disparity between the troubles undertaken to forge this arrangement and the effectiveness of its results, including the attempt to subdue Qatar, soon became increasingly evident.

The MbS experiment goes awry

Lebanon was uncharacteristically united in demanding the Saudis release its prime minister, who quickly de-escalated tensions with Hezbollah upon his return. The Hariri initiative failed and even strained Saudi ties with the Hariri clan, who now seem to be turning to Turkey as theirs Sunni patron.

The blockade also failed its objectives. Doha imported necessities from Iran and Turkey to get around the blockade, with Iran’s airspace and waters becoming Doha’s outlet to the outside world for its international flights and vital LNG export shipments.

Turkey’s military base in Qatar also acted as a deterrent against a possible Saudi invasion of the small country. This was something which The Intercept reported in 2018 was being seriously considered by the Saudis and UAE who were then reprimanded by warnings from Tillerson and the US military.

Boosting MbS as a force-multiplier for Israeli interests was not working. The logic of establishing his dominance over the GCC – of which subjugating Qatar was a prerequisite – thus collapsed.

GCC-Qatar normalization and the Qatari-Emarati scramble for Israel

It was not merely the will to undo a failed policy that pushed Kushner to lead GCC normalization talks at the tail end of his White House stint as Trump made way for the Joe Biden presidency.

Israel benefits from the lifting of the blockade, with the reason for this indirectly alluded to by an observation by US State Department deputy assistant secretary for GCC affairs Timothy Lenderking at a conference last November:

"How is it that the Arab countries of the region can make peace with Israel more readily than they can resolve the Gulf rift with Qatar?"

The mismatch between the GCC’s enthusiasm for Israel and resolving their own bloc’s internal issues is why Israel now supports Qatar’s freedom from the blockade.

The strong sense of sovereignty and competitiveness with its GCC peers instilled in Qatar by the blockade years coupled with Israel’s evident status as a powerful power-broker in Gulf politics may well push Qatar toward Israel to one-up the Saudis and UAE.

Israel could thus replace the unstable and soon formally liquidated Kushner-MbS arrangement with a similar quid pro quo-based rapport with Qatar. This would allow Israel to stay within its comfort zone in dealing with new prospective allies, keeping to its traditional approach of offering lobbying support in the US for states willing to forge military or economic cooperation with it.

Key to the effectiveness of this approach is the UAE and the retention of Abu Dhabi’s rivalry with Qatar post-blockade.

According to a November 2020 analysis by Gulf States Analytics CEO and the Baker Institute for Public Policy’s Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, the UAE largely avoided the pressure faced by the conflict-weary Saudis to compromise with Qatar and end the blockade:

‘The UAE is no longer directly involved in Yemen, and Abu Dhabi signed the Abraham Accords with Israel. These factors mean that, compared to Saudi Arabia, the UAE has to much less to worry about in terms of detoxifying its reputation in Washington – particularly among Democrats who will be in control of the White House and at least one chamber in Congress in just two months. ‘

However, it is the UAE’s ascendance throughout the blockade’s duration as an alternative for Tel Aviv to the shaky Kushner-MbS model which poses Doha a dilemma.

Israel found in the UAE’s regional presence a more stable, reliable vehicle for its geostrategic interests. For example, it recently gained a base for covert involvement and surveillance in Yemen in the form of the Yemeni island of Socotra which the UAE yet occupies, helping it follow the activities of the Houthis who it considers a missile threat and Iran-allied Red Sea-region rival.

To Doha, this upward trend in UAE-Israel ties poses the risk of Israel – with its past willingness to play favorites in backing GCC states against each other – agreeing to anti-Qatar policies.

This can spur Qatar to compete against the UAE for Israel’s favor to ensure Israel does not embolden the UAE to hamstring Qatar’s return to full normalcy with the GCC.

Israel and the Qatari-Emarati arms race

One aspect of a competitive Qatari-Emarati scramble for Israel is especially advantageous for the Jewish state in gaining a position of leverage over Qatar as it did over the Saudis. This is Qatar’s push to match the UAE’s military buildup through arms imports.

Israel has de facto veto power over US arms sales, manifesting in the form of 2008 amendments to the US Arms Export Control Act which prohibit such arms exports which might hamper Israel’s ‘Qualitative Military Edge’ (QME) in the Middle East.

A month after the Abraham Accord, the UAE requested F-35s from the US. However, it took Israel’s approval in late October for the sales dealings to proceed following a US agreement to sell Israel, currently the beneficiary of an over decade-long $38 billion US military aid package, more weapons systems to sustain its QME.

Days later, Israel indicated acceptance of F-35 sales to Qatar as well – who had followed up the UAE’s request for F-35s with one of its own two weeks later.

This was a major signal for Qatar, who may well have expected Israel to seek to block the sale out of solidarity with the UAE. It showed Qatar that Israel no longer sought to turn it into a client to its Gulf neighbors as it did during the MbS experiment – and that its route to maintaining military parity with the UAE ran through dealing with Tel Aviv.

Tilting the Qatari opinion equation

Aside from the general opportunity Israel would gain to demand more ‘gifts’ for its QME each time it greenlit US arms sales to wealthy regional states, Qatar perceiving it as vital to its military prowess could yield it another subtle yet significant dividend.

This would be the tilting of the opinion among Qatari elites – and populace, considering the state’s less authoritarian nature by GCC standards – toward full diplomatic normalization with Israel.

This has hitherto been elusive owing to the considerable soft power Qatar historically gained from its state-owned al Jazeera network’s critical coverage of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of Israeli-Saudi and Israeli-Emarati ties.

This factor has held back Doha from giving more substance to its Israel dealings, which to date include an Israeli trade office in Doha opened in 1996 and Qatari mediation for ceasefires between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

For example, the Qatari public heavily protested the hosting of Harvard law professor and high-profile American Zionist Alan Dershowitz by a Qatari royal family-linked educational program in early 2018. Dershowitz’ trip to Qatar and his subsequent praise of it in the media was linked to a Qatari spending campaign in the US to ‘court the Israel lobby’ as described by The Electronic Intifada’s executive director Ali Abunimah in 2019.

Abunimah highlighted that this courtship included Qatar suppressing an al Jazeera documentary on the controversial workings of the Israel lobby in the US, which The Electronic Intifada itself gained possession of and released in November 2018.

However, post-blockade Qatar in terms of both its leadership and now more nationalistic populace may well prioritize militarily matching Gulf rivals above the Palestine cause and agree with embracing Israel for favor in this regard. Israel itself is well-equipped to nudge Qatar toward this choice with its shadow looming large over its future import-driven military buildup which has already seen its airforce expanded from 12 to 96 jets.

For Israel, normalization and more organic ties with Qatar could then trump the Abraham Accord in significance, furthering its goal of stoking greater GCC-Iran tension which it notably failed at when it took an MbS-centric, anti-Qatar approach to Gulf affairs.

Israel, Qatar and the Iran agenda

As emphasized by the author in a 17 January 2020 article for The Express Tribune, one key divergence in the Israeli-GCC bonhomie is GCC aversion to war with Iran which would engulf their vital energy infrastructure and ports and even block their shipping.

In particular, Qatar as the physically closest Gulf state to Iran by sea and air stands out as an outpost of relative GCC-Iran normalcy and barrier to a US-Iran war.

Hosting one of Iran’s first potential missile targets in the form of the US’ al Udeid base sensitizes Doha strongly to the need to mitigate US-Iran tensions. Beyond this, Qatar shares the huge Persian Gulf South Pars/North Dome gas field with Iran and thus finds its own prosperity linked to Iran viewing the Persian Gulf as a trading zone, not a battle zone.

This view may well change upon Qatar normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel, something even Iran’s main GCC rival Saudi Arabia did not do.

Iran will consider this as Israel opening a new front against it, closer to home than their traditional proxy wars in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Additionally, Tehran’s heightened concerns of Israeli aircraft using Qatar’s airspace and airbases will heat up Persian Gulf war-tensions to levels Doha hitherto avoided since the pragmatic mutual avoidance of escalation between Iran and the US military does not apply to Iran and Israel.

Normalization with Israel may also turn Qatar’s arms race with the UAE into a cause of tension with Iran. This lies in the Gulf states’ focus on importing offensive weapons systems and armaments despite what Defense Priorities’ Geoff LaMear describes as a shortcoming in their defensive and not offensive capabilities.

According to LaMear, Iran will interpret this as aggressive Israel-backed posturing on their part and wield the threat of missile attacks on the GCC launched by itself or its paramilitary allies in the Middle East more often.

While outright war with Iran featuring the GCC and the US may yet remain avoided, Israel will still have succeed in souring Qatar-Iran ties and boosting Persian Gulf tensions.

The end of the blockade and Israel’s evolving Gulf policy

While agreeing to end the jarring blockade on account of its economic-logistical inconveniences, the UAE, Saudis and Qatar have retained their rivalries and carry them on into the post-blockade era.

What the closure of the 2017-21 Qatar blockade chapter has truly normalized is an unprecedented divergence in the foreign policies of the major Gulf Arab states – and their conviction that primacy in the Gulf can be achieved via bargaining with Israel.

To Israel, this confers upon it a special status as a foreign power broker in the Gulf region it previously achieved little with using more aggressive tactics – the Qatar blockade being one of them.

Agha Hussain is an independant editorial contributor based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, with a special focus on Middle East affairs and US foreign policy.