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How Israel Should Navigate the Gulf Crisis

With the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis in its second week after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and non-GCC member Egypt cut ties with Qatar, Israel is in a tricky situation. The Gulf dispute does not in any way involve Israel, but that does not mean that it won’t affect Israel. There are both potential opportunities and potential pitfalls for Israel depending on how it navigates between the sides, which requires treading particularly carefully and amassing a complete picture of the consequences depending on how Israel chooses to proceed.

Unlike the United States, which has real ties to the states on both sides of this, Israel tilts far more heavily toward the Saudi-led camp. Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt are established to varying degrees, particularly as it relates to security – and the last thing Israel wants to do is to damage those partnerships. Consequently, if forced to choose sides, Israel doesn’t have much of a choice. As it is tangential to this dispute though, thankfully Israel does not have to choose, and for a variety of reasons, there is little upside for Israel in taking a strong public stance against Qatar. In contrast to supporting Saudi-led efforts to isolate Iran, for instance, Israel here has to signal that it supports Saudi Arabia and the UAE without making an outright enemy of Qatar.

While the two do not have formal diplomatic relations – which actually makes things easier for Israel here since it does not have to expel any Qatari diplomats – the Qatari government has been willing to engage with Israeli government officials in public in a way that other Arab governments have not, including official trade relations in the past. There is also the variable that the U.S. military’s primary regional airbase is in Qatar, and Israel does not want to be put in a situation where American operations out of Qatar that may benefit Israel would be restricted because of a wider rift between Qatar and Israel; while this may sound far-fetched, the U.S. encountered precisely such a scenario when Turkey objected to hosting a NATO X-Band radar system if any of the intelligence yielded from it was shared with Israel. Finally, a vociferous Israeli denunciation of Qatar may backfire, as public Israeli support for any policy measure is one of the most reliable ways to doom it with Arab countries who cannot afford to be seen banding with Israel or taking actions that are in Israel’s interest. Thus even if Israel wants to see Qatar isolated and taken down a peg, throwing it under the bus may end up being counterproductive.

But the real aspect for Israel to consider is how any moves it makes on the Qatar front will impact Hamas. The Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war have been disastrous for Hamas, because while Arab regimes took an even harder line against Islamist movements challenging the existing order, and the latter resulted in the Syrian government’s support for Hamas ended following the group’s decision to back the anti-Assad opposition. Hamas has been overly reliant on Iran from one side and on Qatar and Turkey from the other to stay afloat, but its relationship with Iran suffered in tandem with its abandonment of Assad, making its support from Qatar even more critical. Qatar’s expulsion of Hamas leaders from Doha following American and Gulf pressure over Qatari support for terrorism means that Hamas is now as internationally isolated as it has ever been and cannot count on the same level of financial support from Qatar that it has enjoyed. At the same time, Hamas is in the depths of a crisis at home in its relations with the Palestinian Authority following a decision by Mahmoud Abbas to drop any pretensions about Palestinian unity and instead try to squeeze Hamas until it pops. Electricity to Gaza – provided by Israel and paid for by the PA – was cut even further this week after the PA said it was reducing its payments to Israel for electricity by 40%, resulting in an Israeli cabinet decision to reduce the electricity it provides by the same amount. The upshot of this is that Israel is now in a position where it may be tempted to do what it can on the Qatari front to pressure Hamas even more and try to cause the group’s complete collapse.

If Israel does indeed use the Gulf crisis as a vehicle for punishing Hamas, it has to walk a very fine line and take into account both Hamas’s potential sources of support and what would replace it in Gaza if it falls. If pressuring Qatar to cut off Hamas would deprive the group of oxygen entirely it would be one thing, but there are other sources of support that may fill the void, and in many ways it is better for Hamas to rely on Qatar than it is for Hamas to rely on Iran and Turkey. The role of Qatari financing in propping up Hamas allowed for a wedge to be driven between Hamas and Iran – a development with no uncertain benefits to Israel – and depriving Hamas of that financing is likely to push Hamas farther toward Iran. Giving Turkey a larger role in Gaza through Hamas at the same time that Turkey has been making a serious push for influence among Palestinians in East Jerusalem is also dangerous, as Turkey has larger ambitions for influence within Israel and the Palestinian territories than Qatar does. Qatar is by no means an innocuous or innocent actor, and I have seen no evidence that Qatar’s influence on Hamas has been moderating in any real sense. But to the extent that forcing Qatar to cut off Hamas entirely will mean more Iranian and Turkish influence, it will not be a helpful development.

There is also the question of what will replace Hamas if depriving Hamas of Qatari money and preventing Doha from being used as a home for Hamas’s political leadership will lead to a Hamas collapse. If Israel were confident that the PA was in a position to take over Gaza and govern it along with the West Bank, then taking action to topple Hamas would be a strategic victory for both Israel and the U.S. There is no guarantee that ending Hamas’s reign will result in PA control, however, rather than general anarchy in Gaza, or that Islamic Jihad or an ISIS subset will not fill the void. And despite the fact that neither Israel nor the Hamas leadership want another war in Gaza right now, the same condition applied in 2014 when events spun out of control and both sides felt the need to escalate in various ways. If Hamas believes that it is about to lose its grip on power, it has every incentive to lash out and to turn a blind eye to jihadi groups that are even more eager to do so. In other words, before making any sudden moves, Israel needs to be confident that the outcome on the other side will be better than what currently prevails.

The Israeli government should approach this by refusing to allow the PA to draw Israel into an intra-Palestinian fight that will not clearly benefit Israel right now, and by using this as an opportunity to set in motion a genuine regional process that ends with better relations with Israel’s neighbors. It means working with Egypt to ensure that Gaza’s electricity and sewage crises are solved without Israel bearing the entire burden of making up for the financial shortfall, demonstrating that Israel can be a dependable partner to the countries that have sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative, and making sure that Hamas stays where it is only until Israel can be reasonably certain that it is in a position to manage the post-Hamas period without making the Gaza security conundrum worse. The GCC crisis may look from the outset like a golden opportunity for Israel, but a bit more digging shows that it is far more complicated than it seems at first glance.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.