It is easy for ignorant observers to mischaracterize behind the scenes negotiations. All too often, pundits trade measured speculation for sensationalized, libelous, and condescending accusations – after all, it sells better. But this is not how diplomacy works and is certainly not how real political change is ever achieved. The informed person knows that commentary from the overhyped peanut gallery is at best foolish and at worst intellectually dishonest.
A few months ago, Nick Muzin asked me to attend meetings with influential global thought leaders who are also prominent in the Jewish world, and the Emir of Qatar. I have known Nick for over 15 years. We have studied Jewish texts together, celebrated Shabbos at each other’s homes, and shared events with world leaders at Shabtai, the Jewish Society at Yale. Nick is a dear friend, a Jewish leader, and an inspiration for those who seek to reconcile a traditional Jewish life with the modern world. So needless to say, I was astounded that he was asking me to meet with the head of a country that funds Hamas, a terrorist organization that seeks the destruction of the State of Israel, had founded Al Jazeera, and was consistently flirting with Iran.
I consulted both a former National Security Advisor and a former Ambassador of Israel. Both were now at liberty to speak freely and give candid advice. They told me that I should engage with Qatar. Unlike Iran, they explained, Qatar had the potential to amend its ways and align itself with the West. If Qatari leaders wanted to meet with every prominent Jew they could get into a room, that was a good sign. For unlike others in the region, (and the list is shrinking) they were willing to engage. Why should we fight our enemies when we could possibly turn them into allies? A mere cursory reading of world history compels us to try.
I attended the meeting expecting a full charm offensive from the Emir. I was pleasantly surprised. While there was no shortage of controversy and contention between many of us and the Qataris, we were still able to have a deep and thoughtful dialogue. Don’t get me wrong. Between Qatar’s ties to Hamas, the routine anti-Semitism on Al Jazeera, and their friendliness with Iran, there was a lot of work to be done to come to some kind of understanding. The Emir at times, referred to Israel as Palestine. Yet it was clear that everyone around the table was there to try and bridge the very wide gaps.
Over the past few months, I have seen sentiments on Qatar within the Jewish community shift dramatically from mostly negative to cautiously optimistic. This shift doesn’t come from an aggressive white-washing public relations campaign or on the heels of bribery, as some have suggested. These shifting sentiments are in response to Qatar’s outreach to the Jewish community. Many prominent Jewish leaders have flown to Qatar and have spent quality time with the country’s leadership. There they have discussed their concerns, built personal relationships, and have made suggestions about how the Qataris can improve their relationship with the United States and Israel. And from what I’ve heard, the Qataris have begun to listen and engage. That’s more than can be said for many other countries in the region.
Recently, Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz — a man who needs no introduction but will get one from me anyway — went to Doha to talk with the Qataris. Alan is the undisputed defender of the Jewish people and State of Israel. While much of his work reaches the public eye, it is the phone calls with desperate families, sleepless nights and sincere emotional commitment to anxious parties, and his indefatigable courage, that truly define his character. I have personally worked with him to successfully bring many of the so-called enemies of the Jewish people to the table. He has been the architect of the strategy to have them retract their hostile actions. He is our generation’s greatest proponent of democracy and rights for all. Not to mention his intellectual prowess, and tireless commitment to Justice. He is certainly not a man who changes his mind or values, on a whim.
Upon his return from Doha, he wrote an op-ed in which he called for a greater attempt at understanding on both sides and a fact-finding commission to resolve conflicting factual claims — something that is very much needed if we are going to make any progress in this conflict. In fact, several publications (including The New York Times) have recently begun looking into the complexity of the situation. They have noted that Qatar’s relationship with terrorist organizations is often exaggerated and that in many cases they have a better track record than other countries in the region (particularly Saudi Arabia). The media, no doubt, will pay increasing attention to the facts of the case as events unfold. But already, with some brief investigation, we see that the conventional wisdom on Qatar is perhaps more simplistic than the reality.
Alan also noted that the Qataris were taking some good steps in order to improve relations with Israel and to help reunify the Gulf States to present a united front to Iran. After all, we certainly do not want to force Qatar into the arms of Iran — a likely possibility if the Gulf Cooperative Council continues its economic sanctions on Qatar. One good step that the Qataris took, that Alan didn’t mention, was their decision to invite and speak with Alan Dershowitz. Qatar’s willingness to engage with people they disagree with will serve them well.
If you want to know what’s really going on with Qatar, or frankly with any serious matter, ignore the speculation of brash bystanders who have been left out of these engagements. In some instances they have been ignored precisely due to their inability to dialogue with anyone in strict confidence. Concerned citizens must step away from the worn-out soapboxes of uninformed commentators who (desperate to cling to any form of prominence) will repeat the same talking points, over and over again, in absolute denial of which way the wind is actually blowing.
No amount of noise from those seeking fame and unwarranted relevance can ever achieve what a group of earnest and open-minded people can. The stakes are high. In Alan Dershowitz and Nick Muzin, America and Israel have our greatest advocates at the helm. The winds may have actually begun to blow Westward.