In politics, perception is reality, a simple basic rule that is hard to evade or abolish. No country understands that concept better than Qatar. The monarchy, with wide ambitions that defy both history and geography, is working to create new perceptions of power and influence that extend beyond its borders.
One of Qatar’s target playgrounds is Gaza; the recent visit of Emir Hamad to the impoverished strip is a perfect example of the power of perception. Through the visit, Qatar became the patron of the Islamic movements, the “therapist” that aimed to rehabilitate Hamas, and the power that stands against Iranian influence in the region. Other players on the Gaza front – Hamas, Egypt, and Israel– joined in; each wanted to create a novel perception. Hamas wanted to assert the image of a strong Palestinian group, fully in control of Gaza, that managed to break the siege imposed by Israel. Egypt’s Morsi wanted to look as if Egypt had departed from the anti-Hamas Mubarak policy. Israel – in a way – was happy to play the party betrayed by the Qatari Emir who threw peace under the bus
On the ground, the reality could not be any more different. It was interesting to see the Emir hastily end his visit without attending a planned rally at the Palestine stadium, only for escalation to follow between Israel and militants in Gaza with the reactivation of the ongoing RRT cycle – rockets, retaliation, and then a fragile truce. Gaza is not just Hamas; there are other groups in Gaza, each with a different agenda. One of these groups, Islamic Jihad, still maintains close links with Iran, the country that Qatar aims to challenge. The myth of breaking the siege on Gaza did not actually play out on the ground. The siege was partially lifted, although Egypt still has not fulfilled its promise to open the Rafah border for trade despite a Hamas request. The unsolved security situation in Sinai does not help the relationship between Morsi and the Hamas leadership and could cast its shadow for a long time. As for Israel, despite a formal statement, many Israelis have expressed satisfaction with the visit, including the former Israeli National Security Advisor, retired Major General Giora Eiland who wrote that: “maintaining the West Bank and Gaza as one political entity is a Palestinian interest, but not an Israeli one.”
A new future reality?
Three basic tenants are crucial for politicians to guarantee the long-term success of any newly launched perception: perfect understanding of the current reality, avoidance of over-selling the new perception, and ability to change reality to fit the new perception.
If we rewound the clock to 18 years ago, in the spring of 1994, we would see another “significant visit” to Gaza and Egypt by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At that time, peace was the new perception, and Arafat was the “rehabilitated leader” who endorsed peace; he headed to Gaza to symbolically endorse “Gaza-Jericho,” the first stage of the Oslo peace agreement. Arafat fully understood the fragility of the Palestinian people, with their two separate territories well apart from each other. Precisely why Jericho had to be combined with Gaza in one step. Despite these efforts, things did not work out according to plan, and the Oslo agreement failed to produce a Palestinian state for reasons beyond the scope of this piece. The perception of “peace around the corner” has failed miserably to materialize.
For the Qatari visit to achieve what Arafat failed to achieve, far more than a mere visit was needed; it would require a coordinated plan between the three players: Qatar, Egypt, and Hamas. The plan would not just relate to Gaza; Hamas’ ultimate goal and dream is to control both the West Bank and Gaza. The militant group – still dedicated to destroying Israel – is very patient and willing to play out the RRT cycle (rockets, retaliation, truce) for a long time, waiting for Abbas’ self-harm and reckless weakness to eventually lead to the collapse of Fatah control of the West Bank. It also awaits a possible “spring” in Jordan that may alter the entire equation favorably on its side ( precisely why Giora ‘s views are risky).
However, many “ifs” and “buts” can ruin this plan and prevent it from materializing on the ground. Can Qatar bring stability to Gaza? Would the US continue its endorsement of Qatar’s “humanitarian efforts” in Gaza? Would Hamas succeed in controlling the other groups in Gaza and help Egypt secure Sinai? Would Hamas succeed in emulating the Gaza experience in the West Bank? Would Israel stand by Abbas or leave him to sink on his own? How would Israel deal with Hamas in the future? Would Qatar embark on playing the “supporting the Islamists” game in Jordan and undermine an Arab monarchy for the first time?
These questions are difficult to answer now, but they are crucial for the survival of Qatar’s newly launched power perception. So far, Arab politicians have a long, miserable, unsuccessful record in narrowing the gap between perception and reality. They launch a very ambitious perception, spice it up with emotional rhetoric, then lose sight of the current reality and eventually fail to create a new reality that fits with their desired perception. The result is despair and confusion among the Arab people, who end up adopting conspiracy theories to explain what went wrong. Will the Qataris learn from their predecessors and avoid their mistakes?
Following the Emir of Qatar’s visit to Gaza, there are news of a possible second royal visit, this time by the Bahraini king. According to Egyptian Shorouk news, he is due to visit Gaza next Thursday. If true, this signals how the perception of success is contagious and how it usually followed by copycat activities. The Saudi-Bahraini camp (a rival to Qatar) within the GCC is now on alert and views Gaza as an opportunity. Breaking the siege is a theme that can win hearts and minds and send a strong message to the enemies, mainly the Iranian regime.
Interestingly, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan also signalled a desire to visit Gaza in the past, but has never yet done so. It seems likely that he received a redline from Israel and the US. Erdogan was defiant towards Israel, unlike the Arab monarchs who are viewed as benign or even useful due to their “humanitarian efforts.” I also think that Eiland’s views are more popular than many think. The road to a one state solution – Israeli style – will require Gaza to be a viable entity completely divorced from the Palestinian authority in Ramallah. That is why many inside Israel started to view a strengthening of Hamas as an advantage. This is bad news to the Palestinian unity, however; money can break the siege, but can never buy a state.
I later heard reports that the Foreign Minister of Bahrain denied the news of a possible visit of the King to Gaza on Twitter. I guess we have to wait and see.