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Qatar is Go-To Mediator in Mi 11/27 07:05


   JERUSALEM (AP) -- The deal seemed on the verge of unraveling. Hamas had 
accused Israel of failing to keep its side of the bargain and Israel was 
threatening to resume its lethal onslaught on the Gaza Strip.

   That was the point at which a Qatari jet landed at Israel's Ben-Gurion 
International Airport on Saturday. Negotiators aboard set to work, seeking to 
save the cease-fire deal between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers before it fell 
apart and scuttled weeks of high-stakes diplomatic wrangling.

   The first public visit by Qatari officials to Israel marked an extraordinary 
moment for the two countries, which have no official diplomatic relations. It 
also underscored the major role of the tiny emirate in bridging differences 
between the enemies.

   "This is something we've never seen before," Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow 
at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said of the 
Qataris' stay in Israel. "It's the only external actor in the world with that 
much leverage on Hamas, because of its many years of support."

   The weekend mission was successful, and most of the team jetted home. But 
several Qatari mediators stayed behind to work with Israeli intelligence 
officials on extending the four-day truce, which ends Tuesday morning, 
according to a diplomat briefed on the visit who spoke on condition of 
anonymity because of the sensitivity.

   With its close ties to the United States --- it hosts the largest American 
military base between Europe and Japan --- its communication with Israel since 
1995 and its support of blockaded Gaza to the tune of what estimates suggest is 
more than $1 billion since 2014, Qatar is uniquely positioned to break 
deadlocks in the cease-fire talks, which also involve the U.S. and Egypt.

   "We need Qatar," Guzansky said of Israel, noting that other Arab countries 
increasingly have interests in Israel and are normalizing their relations. 
"Qatar is seen as the only player in the Arab world that is loyal to the 
Palestinian cause."

   The emirate has hosted an overseas Hamas political office since 2012, 
allowing Qatar to wield some influence over the militant group's 
decision-makers. Top Hamas officials, including the group's supreme leader, 
Ismail Haniyeh, live in Qatar.

   Qatar says Hamas' political office in its capital, Doha, came about at the 
request of U.S. officials who wanted to establish a communication channel, just 
as Doha had hosted Taliban offices during America's 20-year war in Afghanistan.

   Qatari officials say they are guided by a desire to reduce conflict, though 
their ties with a range of Islamist groups, including Hamas, the Muslim 
Brotherhood in Egypt and the Taliban have drawn criticism from Israel, some 
U.S. lawmakers and neighboring Arab governments.

   "This is soft power on steroids, mobilized for America's interest," said 
Patrick Theros, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar. "Hosting organizations which 
the United States cannot be seen talking to is part of this policy."

   The wealthy Gulf Arab state with a native population of just 300,000 has 
leveraged its strategic location and tremendous natural gas riches to wield 
political influence and project soft power around the world, including as host 
of the 2022 World Cup.

   In the Israel-Hamas hostage negotiations, Qatari mediators, joined by those 
from Egypt and the U.S., faced the task of getting the warring sides to put 
faith in diplomacy when trust was sub-zero.

   Over the weekend, Hamas complained that Israel had violated the terms of 
their cease-fire and said the deal was in danger. Only 137 trucks with badly 
needed humanitarian aid made it through on Friday, the first day of the truce, 
and 187 on the second day, according to the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency. 
Israel had promised to permit 200 a day.

   Qatari officials resorted to face-to-face meetings with Israeli officials to 
try to save the deal, according to the diplomat. A few hours with Mossad 
officials in Tel Aviv proved crucial on Saturday. Suddenly, the deal was back 
on. Hamas handed over its second batch of Israeli hostages, families in the 
West Bank rejoiced over another 39 women and teenagers freed from prison, and 
Palestinians in Gaza emerged from their shelters to search for fuel and missing 
family members.

   Qatar's assistant foreign minister, Lolwah Al-Khater, became the first 
foreign official to visit the besieged Gaza Strip on Sunday. He used the pause 
in fighting to survey the disputed influx of aid, meet wounded Palestinians and 
talk with Wael al-Dahdouh, Gaza bureau chief of Qatari-funded Al Jazeera, who 
lost his wife, son and grandchild in an Israeli airstrike. The pan-Arab 
broadcaster, which has more cameras in Gaza than any other news outlet, has 
dominated Arabic coverage of the war.

   Despite their differences, both Israel and Hamas have an interest in 
prolonging calm. Even as bigger questions mount over what happens after the 
war, a Qatari official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the 
sensitivity of ongoing negotiations says his country stays focused on what's 
immediately possible, such as maintaining the cease-fire and preventing a 
regional war that draws in Hamas' Iranian patrons or Lebanon's Hezbollah 

   A steady stream of officials have passed through Doha to that end, including 
Iran's foreign minister, Lebanon's caretaker prime minister and the director of 
the CIA.

   "There is no conflict that began and ended on the battlefield," Majed 
al-Ansari, spokesperson for Qatar's Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press 
on Monday. "Now, as hostages are being released and there are pauses in the 
fighting, we might be able to find a solution."

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