By: Omri Brinner, John Devine, Martina Gambacorta and Angelo Calianno.
The most significant development from the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas is the warming of relations between two rival camps in the Middle East, which is a hopeful sign of things to come. If developments such as the recent Saudi-Iranian negotiations and the seeming end of the civil war in Libya continue to characterize regional affairs, then the region might very well be on its way to rehabilitate from more than a decade of continued wars.
The two countries representing the rival camps are Egypt and Qatar. Regionally, Egypt is in league with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Qatar is linked with Turkey and Iran. Egyptian-Qatari relations have significantly improved since the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire and the Qatari promise of increased financial support to the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Qatar are in a unique position to bridge geopolitical gaps through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Egypt as the only Arab country that borders the Gaza Strip and therefore controls the crossings to and fro Gaza; and Qatar as the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with the authorities in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Until recently, the two countries and their camps were on a head-on course of action, best characterized by the 2017 blockade on Qatar, which focused to a large extent on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and not by chance. Since its inception in 1928 the MB has challenged and at times terrorized the Egyptian state, with the rivalry climaxing in 2012 when the organization won the Egyptian elections and became the ruling party. However, the old regime soon retook power through a military coup and began persecuting, jailing and executing MB members.
A notable portion of Qatar’s support to the MB has been delivered to its Palestinian branch, Hamas. As a MB affiliate, in recent years Hamas has challenged Egyptian sovereignty by building underground smuggling tunnels and connecting with Egyptian terrorists in the border area. Egypt’s fierce anti-MB policies, which include a joint Egyptian-Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, have resulted in Hamas’ dependency on Egypt for humanitarian support. Hamas is, therefore, willing to make concessions that will essentially, in light of its dire state, benefit both itself and Egypt. In other words, in coordination with Israel, Egypt decides when and what to give to the Gaza Strip.
However, Egypt has competition for both peacemaking and patronage in the Gaza Strip by one of its regional foes, Qatar. Qatar is in a distinct position as it is the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with both Israel (albeit unofficial) and Hamas. Other regional countries have either relations with the two parties or funds to spare, but not both. Therefore, Qatar has two prominent roles in supporting the Gaza Strip. The first is financial. Since 2012 Qatar has transferred to Gaza around 1.5 billion USD with Israel’s approval, with Hamas directly receiving the lion’s share. Despite this fact, it is in Israel’s interest that the Gaza Strip will be politically and economically stable. Israel calculates that stability reduces the chances of a coup by more extreme local groups, such as the Islamic Jihad, and that Palestinians will want to maintain a relatively good lifestyle and low unemployment rates, as opposed to times of poverty and recurring clashes. The other Qatari role is providing Gaza with energy. With the electricity infrastructure all but functional, Hamas found in Qatar a patron for petrol - the latter being the world-leading exporter of liquefied natural gas.
So far, it seems that the shared interest of Egypt, Qatar, Israel and Hamas to stabilize the Gaza Strip has strengthened relations between Egypt and Qatar. An indication for this state of affairs took place a day after the ceasefire agreement was reached, when the exiled Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke from Qatar, thanking Egyptfor its role in brokering the ceasefire. It should be noted that Haniyeh could not have congratulated Egypt on Qatari soil without the authorities’ blessing. However, while Qatar has been in the driving seat with regards to financing the Gaza Strip thus far, Egypt is now challenging the former by organizing a regional donors conference. It also recently announced the allocation of 500 million USD of its own funds for the reconstruction of the strip. That said, Egypt needs to carefully calculate its financing schemes to maintain the Qatari-Egyptian cooperation in Gaza. Otherwise, it will push Qatar to either transfer more funds directly to Hamas or to stop the flow of cash altogether, leaving itself as Gaza’s sole provider.
When examining Egyptian-Qatari relations in a wider geopolitical perspective, it can be stated that each country represents its camp in terms of competition, but also cooperation and diplomacy. The improved Egyptian-Qatari relations signify improved relations between the camps. Other developments include Egyptian-Turkish talks, in which the sides discussed various disagreeable issues (such as Turkey’s favourable policies towards the MB), the apparent end of the Libyan civil war, the Saudi-Iranian negotiations and, consequently and hopefully, the beginning of the end of the Yemenite civil war, the revival of the JCPOA and the end of the blockade on Qatar.
Comparing today’s regional state of affairs to that of a year ago will show that calculated and mutually beneficial diplomacy is arguably a better ingredient for regional stability and peace than hardline and uncompromising policies.