News reports indicate that U.S. President Donald Trump has urged his Afghan counterpart to pressure Qatar into closing the Taliban’s Doha office.
For all the claims Saudi Arabia and its allies have leveled against Qatar, hosting a Taliban presence — which even Afghanistan hasn’t protested so forcefully — is not one of them. This is of Trump’s own making, possibly related to his evolving Afghanistan strategy, which relies heavily on private contractors for whom peace is a barrier to profits.
Such a Taliban outpost, on neutral ground, had seemed like a constructive channel for negotiating matters large and small, including exchange of prisoners. In any case, even if Qatar complies, this does nothing to resolve the more volatile internal dispute among the Gulf nations.
Early last June, just as Gulf tensions were boiling over, Qatar informed senior Hamas officials they could no longer use Doha as their home away from home. That move didn’t help Qatar’s standing with its Gulf neighbors, nor did it keep the Saudis from pushing prominent right-wing American Jews to raise a fuss against Qatar as a sponsor of terror (unlike the 19 Saudis from 9/11, let’s say, as opposed to Qatar’s hosting of our base against Islamic State). But it did push Hamas back toward its roots in Egypt, where President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi is now stage-managing a new effort to unify Hamas and the more pro-peace Fatah within a joint PLO or Palestinian Authority framework. And with Sisi leading the way, there’s less incentive for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to object — especially when he’s more worried about Trump’s unlikely but unwelcome promise of a high-octane push for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In practice, Netanyahu has done his part to enhance Hamas as a political force over the years. Most of his Palestinian negotiations have been with Hamas rather than with the PLO or the Palestinian Authority (PA) controlled by Mahmoud Abbas. Most of the prisoner exchanges have involved the release of Hamas terrorists. The fact that Qatar deported the same Hamas operatives who were on Israel’s own priority list also implies that Sisi’s diplomatic maneuverings are not much of a surprise to Netanyahu, and may have been a topic of their conversation last week during the United Nations General Assembly sessions.
Netanyahu has been able to use Hamas as an argument against ever allowing a Palestinian state. In light of the rushed Palestinian elections following Israel’s 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza — which Hamas won — Netanyahu enjoys pointing out that technically Abbas has no legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. As he has on previous occasions when Abbas’ Fatah party was contemplating a unity government with Hamas, this time Netanyahu could again threaten a cutoff of non-existent talks along with various other sanctions against the PA. Netanyahu has little or no interest in seeing a viable and independent Palestinian state but still treats Hamas as a serious regional player, and all the more so if he finds himself navigating the unfriendly waters of peaceful coexistence, with Trump on one shore and Sisi on the other, while also playing Hamas against Fatah.
Whatever comes from this new Egyptian initiative, Trump will have had little to do with it. And it will likely turn out better than adding Afghanistan into the anti-Qatar coalition.