Tiny Qatar Stands Tall In Middle East's New Diplomatic Landscape

The tiny Gulf state of Qatar is playing an outsized role in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Gaza, with Secretary of State John Kerry using Qatar as a conduit to Hamas. Egypt used to moderate Hamas, but those relations have soured. This puts the U.S. in a difficult spot.

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Today there is news of a possible reprieve for the people of Gaza. Izrael and Hamas have agreed to a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire to begin Friday. Diplomats hope this temporary truce will be the start of more serious talks on ending the conflict. It's been a hard slog to get even this far, in part because Arab states are divided, and many are suspicious of one key player - the tiny but rich Gulf state of Qatar. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains why.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: From Secretary of State John Kerry's perspective, it was only natural for him to meet his Turkish and Qatari counterparts in Paris last week. After all, both have close ties with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is on a U.S. terrorism blacklist. And Qatar's foreign minister was the one sending messages to the group's political leader who lives in Doha.

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SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: This particular effort now has been significantly assisted by the input of Qatar.

KELEMEN: The Qatari foreign minister, Khaled bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, made clear the goal of this input is to ease the blockade of Gaza.

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KHALED BIN MOHAMMAD AL-ATTIYAH: They deserve now to have their own seaport so they can trade in and out, even though if it's under the international supervision. But I think the time now comes that we have to have long-term solutions for the people of Gaza.

KELEMEN: Qatar is also offering to pay the salaries of Hamas police and local officials. But Israel sees that as rewarding Hamas and Israeli media have been hammering Kerry for being too close to Qatar on this. An Israeli television station even published what appears to be a bogus transcript of a conversation between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arguing of Qatar's role. The White House said it was shocking that anyone would sink to misrepresenting that call. But it's not only Israel that dislikes Qatar, says Simon Henderson, an expert on the Gulf at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

SIMON HENDERSON: Its efforts in Gaza have not been appreciated by the Israelis, not really by the Palestinian authority in the West Bank and not by the Egyptians either.

KELEMEN: Qatar, he says, is hardly on speaking terms with Egypt, which helped negotiate a 2012 cease-fire for Gaza. Back then, the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt, and it had close ties to Hamas. Last year's coup brought back a military regime that is suspicious of Hamas and of Qatar, says Henderson.

HENDERSON: This is a very small country which is trying to get a voice in Middle East politics, but it's a voice which supports political Islam and recognizes a party in the Israel-Palestinian conflict which doesn't see negotiations or any sort of peace process as a way forward.

KELEMEN: So it's a complicated diplomatic landscape, one that Secretary Kerry seems to be having a hard time trying to navigate. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution says he understands why Kerry is using Qatar to convey messages to Hamas, but it is angering others in the region.

SHADI HAMID: That's just a product of the kind of Arab Cold War that we're in today, where different sides really don't like each other, and there's such a lack of even a semblance of Arab unity.

KELEMEN: So for now, Shadi Hamid says, Secretary Kerry is getting pushed around by regional allies.

HAMID: There's a big credibility issue here of whether or not the U.S. has the kind of heft, credibility and stature to really deliver resolutions to conflicts in the Arab world when it has an increasingly strange relationship, not just with Israel, but also with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, the list goes on.

KELEMEN: U.S. ties with Qatar only add to those strains. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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