As Neighbors Make Deals with Israel, Qatar 'Remains Committed' to Arab Peace Plan

In the wake of two fellow Arabian Peninsula states establishing ties with Israel, Qatar's envoy to the United States told Newsweek his country still backs an 18-year-old Arab plan that ties normalizing relations with the majority-Jewish state to an end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

On the eve of a White House signing ceremony for Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates' back-to-back agreements with Israel, Qatari ambassador to the U.S. Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani said Doha "remains committed to the just settlement of the Palestinian cause based on the Arab Peace Initiative and a two-state solution in a way that achieves security and stability in the region."

The Arab Peace Initiative was first endorsed by the Arab League at the 22-member group's 2002 summit. The proposal calls for the establishment of ties between Israel and the Arab World in exchange for the former's withdrawal from occupied territories that include the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as parts of Syria and Lebanon, along with the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Bahrain and the UAE, however, elected to normalize ties with Israel before such a solution was reached in consecutive deals mediated through President Donald Trump, who has called on other Arab and Muslim countries to follow suit.

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"Both Qatar and the United States recognize that a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is important to the stability of the Middle East," Thani told Newsweek, "and we continue to play an active role in working toward a peaceful resolution."

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Palestinians attend a rally in support of Qatar at the Qatari-funded housing project in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis on June 9, 2017, just days after Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced a joint boycott of Qatar over alleged links to groups considered to be terrorist organizations. SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Last month's agreement between Israel and the UAE marked the first of its kind for the Persian Gulf, making the UAE the third Arab country to build ties with Israel since Jordan in 1994 and Egypt in 1979, with Bahrain becoming the fourth.

Mauritania established relations in 1999, but broke them off a decade later amid Israel's war in Gaza, which was led by the Islamist movement Hamas. The Israel-UAE deal was struck on the backdrop of another uptick in violence in Gaza between Israeli forces and Palestinian militias, where Palestinian rocket attacks have been answered by Israeli airstrikes and shelling.

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Weeks later, Hamas announced a deal had been reached to stop the deadly cycle of escalations. It was Qatar that brokered the negotiations.

"Qatar has long argued for use of mediation and de-escalation as means for conflict resolution," Thani told Newsweek. "For the past two decades, Qatar has sought to bring stability and peace to the region and beyond, not only in Gaza, but also in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Sudan."

Thani emphasized the important peacemaking role his country continues to play, especially in the embattled Gaza Strip.

"Qatar has provided Palestine and the Gaza Strip with vital support to ensure the peaceful and stable development of Gaza and its citizens through multiple aid programs," he said.

With the besieged Palestinian economy and its troubled infrastructure in shambles, Trump vowed earlier this year to double the GDP of the partially-recognized state in exchange for further concessions of its already-divided territory to Israel. Palestinian leadership outright rejected the plan of an administration that had unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in a decision widely-condemned internationally.

Palestinian officials have been similarly critical of the UAE and Bahrain's decision to normalize ties outside of the Arab Peace Initiative framework, criticizing their moves as a "betrayal of Jerusalem," its revered Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause as a whole in remarks sent to Newsweek.

"The Palestinian leadership also renews its call to the brotherly Arab nations to adhere to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002," the statement said, "and calls on the international community to adhere to international law and international legitimacy decisions."

The Israeli embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment but, in the wake of last month's UAE deal, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat had an opposite reaction to that of the Palestinians.

He hoped that "many other Arab countries will join the peace path" forged first by the UAE and then Bahrain.

"Israel will extend its hand in peace to all," Haiat said, "and we hope that the Palestinian leadership will understand the new reality of the Middle East, and will choose peace over war for a better future for their own people and ours."

The Arab World as a whole has proven to be more open-minded about the Trump administration's strategy. The Gulf Cooperation Council which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, spoke favorably about the developments, although it stopped short of an outright endorsement of the plan.

This anti-Israel stance of this collective of these U.S.-friendly countries, of which all but Yemen are run by Sunni Muslim monarchies, has softened considerably over the years, with concerns shifting toward the rise of revolutionary Shiite Islamic Iran—the primary foe of Israel and the U.S. These politics are further complicated, however, by a Saudi-led coalition's move in 2017 to boycott Qatar, effectively severing its land links to the region.

To this day, the blockade is upheld by the quartet of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who join a number of other countries in accusing Qatar of hosting too-close-for-comfort ties with Iran, Turkey and various Sunni and Shiite Muslim movements.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) welcomes Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to launch the third annual U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington on September 14. Pompeo called for an end to a Saudi-led boycott of Qatar and for other Middle Eastern countries to follow in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates' steps in normalizing ties with Israel. ERIN SCOTT/AFP/Getty Images

Thani said the blockade has not deterred his country from its policies or its alliances.

"The blockade is not only unjustified, but it has been completely ineffective," Thani told Newsweek. "In these three years we have built even stronger geopolitical alliances and grown economic relationships, especially with the U.S."

He did not mince words in expressing his gratitude to the Trump administration.

"We are grateful to the U.S. government which, over the past three years, has worked with us to try to bring the illegal blockade of Qatar to an end," he added. "We appreciate President Trump's recent calls for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end their air blockade against Qatar. Our American allies are aware that the blockade is counterproductive and only creates further instability in the region."

The U.S.—whose largest Middle East military installation, Al Udeid Air Base, is located in Qatar—is now looking to capitalize on the recent agreements with Israel to end the diplomatic crisis dividing the GCC. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received a senior Qatari delegation Monday to discuss a range of issues, including these developments.

"Tomorrow, as Israel and the UAE join President Trump at the White House to sign a historic agreement to normalize relations, we anticipate other countries in the Middle East will recognize the benefits of a closer relationship with Israel," Pompeo said.

He also praised Qatar's mediating role in peace talks involving Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza and Syria, and said he is actively pursuing ways to end the blockade of its borders.

"To keep our focus on this work, and to close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it's past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift," Pompeo said. "The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar's air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue."

As Neighbors Make Deals with Israel, Qatar 'Remains Committed' to Arab Peace Plan | World