Recent articles about the Obama administration’s preference for enemies over allies ring depressingly familiar to Israelis, whose country is a past master of that perverse art (see, for instance, its treatment of the South Lebanon Army and the Druze). Thus it was encouraging to learn that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has for once preferred an ally to an enemy, by twice rejecting Qatar’s offer to restore low-level relations.
Qatar opened trade relations with Israel in 1996, then severed them during Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in January 2009. But about six months ago, Haaretz reported, Qatar offered to let Israel reopen its trade mission in Doha if Israel would let it bring large quantities of cement and other construction material into Gaza, grant it leadership over efforts to rebuild the Strip, acknowledge its regional status, and publicly laud its regional role. It reiterated this offer four months later. Both times, Israel refused.
The initial report attributed Israel’s refusal to security concerns: fear that Hamas would use the Qatari construction material “to build bunkers and reinforced positions for missile launches against Israel.” That in itself was encouraging: after 17 years of “risks for peace” that, without exception, led to suicide bombings and rocket barrages, it’s reassuring to know that this government puts security first. Still, reasonable people could disagree over whether the risk truly outweighed the benefits of relations with another Arab country.
But a subsequent report removed all doubts about the decision’s wisdom. The real reason for Israel’s refusal, it said, was not security but Egypt’s objection: at a time when Cairo is taking enormous flak from the Arab world for blockading Gaza’s southern border, at Israel’s request, it would be intolerable for Israel to let Qatar become the Arab world’s hero by breaking the blockade.
Israel has many legitimate grievances against Egypt, from its viciously anti-Semitic state-controlled press to its insane effort to make Israel, rather than Iran, the focus of this month’s NPT Review Conference. Nevertheless, Egypt has on balance proved a valuable ally. Qatar has proved the opposite.
Unlike Qatar, Egypt has never used Israel’s counterterrorism efforts as an excuse for severing its ties with Jerusalem. Moreover, it has led Arab opposition to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas front, whereas Qatar has cozied up to this front: for instance, Doha brokered the 2008 agreement that granted Hezbollah veto power over Lebanon’s government, and it is planning joint military exercises with Iran.
And unlike Qatar, which seeks to bolster Gaza’s Hamas government by rebuilding the Strip, Egypt, after some initial faltering, is now striving to undermine Hamas by enforcing the blockade. And it’s working: in part because Hamas can no longer smuggle large quantities of cash across the Egyptian border, its revenues have fallen steeply, forcing it to impose new taxes that have proved deeply unpopular.
Thus for all its flaws, the Egyptian alliance is worth preserving — and certainly shouldn’t be sacrificed to gain a “friend” like Qatar, which has consistently worked against Israel’s interests. That may seem self-evident. But given Israel’s history of favoring enemies over allies, Netanyahu’s government deserves kudos for recognizing it.