Should American Jewish leaders speak to the rulers of a petro-state that finances Hamas terrorists to blow up their fellow Jews in Israel?
That, in essence, is the fraught question emerging from the rumors and reports of recent days that prominent representatives of the U.S. Jewish community will meet with senior Qatari officials, supposedly including Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, on the fringes of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.
Having canvassed Jewish opinion on this question, I’ve concluded that to answer it with an absolute “no” is unwise. For one thing, it’s a very hard position to maintain indefinitely. Remember, both Egypt and Jordan were signatories to the 1969 Khartoum Declaration of Arab states, which announced the three “no’s” — no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel. Less than half a century later, those two Arab states have said “yes” to all three of those propositions, largely because they grasped the historical moment of Arab rejectionism had already passed. Those outcomes began with a political dialogue predicated on the answer, “possibly.”
An outright refusal to talk also ignores the key considerations of context and purpose. Imagine, say, that Qatar was to edge away from Iran’s embrace, or that it announced a cut in funding to its Hamas friends, or that the Saudis — who have shown real ice in their veins in their current dealings with their Qatari brothers — were to ease their blockade on Doha in exchange for a Qatari commitment to reform their foreign policy. Would it then be wrong for American Jewish leaders to explore what else might be in store? One could certainly imagine the Israelis themselves being willing to do so, given that they operated a trade office in Qatar for nearly a decade before the second Palestinian intifada damaged their burgeoning relations with the Gulf states.
Indeed, this hypothetical demonstrates that dialogue can be a political tactic in itself, a means of either blessing one’s adversary or consigning him to the margins. And it’s precisely here that we get to the heart of the dilemma that Qatar and its emir pose to Jewish leaders — because the current context for a dialogue isn’t what you’d call auspicious.
Two weeks ago, when Qatar first dangled the prospect of a meeting with the emir — via an announcement from a Washington lobbyist being paid $50,000 a month to facilitate this dialogue — we had not heard a single hint of a policy change from Doha. As of this writing, that hasn’t changed. So why, then, should American Jews give Qatar the public relations gift of a meeting, which projects the sense that Qatar is a responsible international player, and that the Saudi attempt to portray it as a terrorism hub is an exercise in dishonesty and hypocrisy?
Look as well at what Qatar could do now. It could lean on Hamas to release — now — the bodies of IDF officers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, both of whom were killed during the summer 2014 Gaza war and whose remains have stayed in Hamas custody ever since, in flagrant violation of international conventions that demand their return to the next of kin.
Qatar could — now — announce a review of how state broadcaster Al Jazeera portrays both Israel and Jews, perhaps with guidance from Jewish institutional experts on anti-Semitism, with the goal of purging conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic memes from the global station’s coverage.
Qatar could — now — deport to Israel for trial the Hamas terrorist Husam Badran, who was given sanctuary in Doha, where he’s now a spokesman for the terrorist group. Badran was behind some of the most sickening outrages of the Hamas suicide bombing campaign against Israel during the second intifada, including the bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem in 2001, and the bombing of a Passover seder at a Netanya hotel in 2002. Forty-five Israelis were murdered in those attacks and hundreds more wounded, and Badran’s hands are stained with the blood of other terror operations too.
But Qatar has not done any of these things. If Jewish leaders must meet with the emir, they should quietly, restrict the conversation to tangible political issues, and make crystal clear that a private meeting is not a public blessing. Those Jewish organizations that already have connections with Qatar should arrange meetings through their own contacts, rather than through a hired PR flak whose sole job is to burnish Qatar’s reputation, regardless of whether the emirate remains, as the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres memorably described it in 2015, the “world’s largest funder of terror.” And if the publicity-conscious Qataris issue a statement hailing a new era in relations with American Jews — without making any real concessions first — then our leaders have a duty to disavow them.
Ben Cohen writes a column on Jewish affairs and Middle East politics for JNS.org, where this article first appeared.