How Qatar became a key broker in the Israel-Hamas deal

Antony Blinken, wearing a black suit jacket, shakes hands with Emir al-Thani, who wears a kaffiyeh and orange-brown robes.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) shakes hands Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during their meeting in Lusail on October 13, 2023. | Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images

The tiny Gulf state has ties with the parties in the conflict. That has made its diplomacy essential — which is exactly what the Qataris want.

Late Tuesday, Qatar formally announced a deal between Israel and Hamas that would temporarily pause fighting in Gaza to facilitate a prisoner exchange of at least 50 Israeli and dual-national hostages for the return of 150 Palestinian prisoners, among other elements.

Implementation of the deal is still being finalized, but it looks like a serious diplomatic breakthrough, though decidedly not a resolution to the conflict. The deal was so sensitive that even as the agreement appeared imminent, senior White House officials were reluctant to confirm until the Qatari government officially announced anything.

Qatar got the spotlight here because of its role as mediator through weeks of painstaking negotiations. The United States played a role, for sure, as did Egypt. But Qatar was a key intermediary.

Even before this most recent war between Israel and Hamas, the very tiny, very rich Gulf state had carved out a bit of a reputation as a diplomatic broker, especially in hostage negotiations. This has been a deliberate gambit on Qatar’s part, which has cultivated and managed pragmatic ties with the region’s main players — becoming a kind of middle man between parties that otherwise do not get along. It’s a key US ally, hosting an American military base critical to US operations in places like Syria and Iraq. Qatar also has ties to Islamist groups, including Hamas, whose political arm has an office in Doha.

This has given Qatar leverage — and, most importantly, access. The United States and Israel do not negotiate directly with Hamas. That has made the Qataris an indispensable go-between. “You have to talk to Hamas to get anything done,” said F. Gregory Gause, professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. “The Qataris are there to help you out — and they’re there to remind you that they’re helping you out.”

Qatar’s role in this conflict extends beyond this week’s deal. In late October, Qatar helped negotiate the release of a couple hostages held by Hamas, and it may be helping to tamp down a wider regional conflict, given its good relations with Iran and open channels with the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah. Qatar played a role in mediating the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, and has supported Gaza, including financing salaries for Hamas civil servants through the sale of fuel to the group — with the okay of Israel, in part because Israel saw it as a stabilizing measure.

Qatar’s diplomacy isn’t limited to the realm of Israel-Hamas, either. Qatar served as an intermediary between the US and the Taliban before the two ultimately negotiated a peace deal directly, in Doha. Qatar’s open lines with the Taliban helped facilitate evacuations from Afghanistan after Kabul’s fall in 2021, and even after. And Qatar has increasingly become known for its skill in hostage negotiations, even outside the region. It recently helped broker a deal to get Russia to return four Ukrainian kids to their families.

“It wants to be influential, diplomatically, and it does understand that, obviously, it’s not a regional superpower that can dictate things,” said Bessma Momani, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo. Yet maintaining these delicate ties — and working those connections — is a very good way for Qatar to advance its interests, and its security. That approach comes with some risks, but, at least right now, they don’t outweigh the upsides for Qatar.

Qatar finds “a way to be helpful and resourceful in specific, niche areas that can have outsized influence,” Momani said. “That’s their strategy.”

How Qatar deployed its strategic diplomacy to secure a deal between Israel and Hamas

After Hamas’s October 7 raid in Israel, where it also captured about 240 hostages, Qatar approached the United States and the Israelis about the potential release of the hostages. According to senior White House officials, this led to the establishment of a channel to work on these negotiations. That working group, or “cell,” as a White House senior official termed it in a call with reporters Tuesday, eventually helped secure the release of two American citizens held hostage by Hamas on October 20. The release served as a kind of test case, and the success of the operation opened up the potential for a wider deal to get many more hostages released. “Qatar really could deliver through the cell we had established,” the senior administration official said.

Weeks of intense diplomacy followed, with the deal often teetering, including over Hamas’s initial refusal to present proof of life. But eventually Hamas agreed, Israel’s government adopted the deal, and Qatar made it official.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty. Israeli strikes on Gaza continued Wednesday, and any prisoner exchange is not likely to start until at least Friday, an Israeli official said. This will be a complex, careful, slow process, and the potential for something to go sideways persists. Maybe the only thing predictable about any of it was Qatar’s involvement.

Hamas’s political wing has maintained an outpost in Doha since 2012, relocating there from Syria after the outbreak of civil war. This Hamas office has come under a lot of scrutiny in the wake of the October 7 attack, but Qatar had welcomed that office with the backing of the United States. At that point, the US had also been relying on Qatari intermediaries to deal with the Taliban.

“With these groups that we, the US, do not engage with directly, it’s better to know where to be able to reach them through intermediaries, should the need arise,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “It’s better to have them in a friendly partner state such as Qatar, than, say, in Afghanistan or in Iran, or in Syria, where they cannot be reached by a third party, if necessary, at a time of crisis.”

The Israel-Hamas war is that type of a crisis, one where a line to Hamas would be very, very difficult for Israel and the United States to establish, but also very, very essential. It goes both ways, too: For Islamist groups like Hamas, Qatar is a conduit to governments and superpowers.

For Qatar, being friends with everyone is a delicate geopolitical balancing act. It can host a US military base, but it can also share an oil field with Iran. It can keep close ties to Islamist groups that America and many of its regional partners do not like at all. But because it’s been able to leverage these connections, it gets to keep doing what it’s doing.

“It’s about basically trying to maintain working relationships with all parties, and then working those relationships in times of crisis to try to de-escalate complex situations that could otherwise have serious repercussions for security instability, not just in Qatar, but in the region,” Ulrichsen said.

Mediation is a pillar of Qatar’s foreign policy, so much so that, as Ulrichsen pointed out, the resolution of international disputes is actually in its constitution. But Qatar is also a small country in a volatile region. It doesn’t have all that much except a lot of oil and gas money — which, to be very fair, is not an insignificant part of this story. This is a helpful entree to power politics, especially if you can, say, fund a global media outlet like Al Jazeera to promote your worldview, or be there with your hydrocarbons if an entire continent is in an energy crisis.

But overall, Qatar believes that if it can demonstrate its utility in the region — and around the globe — that’s something of an insurance policy in case of insecurity and threats. The same thing goes for hosting a superpower’s military base. Being useful to other countries, and raising its global stature, also helps the world overlook some other troubling aspects about Qatar, including its poor human rights record.

“Qatar is trying to carve out a global role,” Gause said. “We saw that with the World Cup. We see that with Al Jazeera. We see that with all these mediation efforts, and we see it with the Islamist strategy, and we see it with the American airbase. It’s all an attempt to make Qatar relevant and make Qatar necessary so no one will say, ‘Why do we need this little place?’”

So far, this is mostly working for Qatar — and maybe for the rest of the world, too, depending on how this latest deal unfolds. It is not a totally risk-free strategy though. It was tested in 2017, when Saudi Arabia and other states boycotted Qatar over its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Then-President Donald Trump jumped in on the side of Saudi Arabia to accuse the Qataris of funding terrorists, too. US diplomats rushed to undo the damage, but the regional boycott ended up lasting about three years. Qatar’s close ties to Islamist groups could one day elicit more pressure from, say, Washington; its position still comes with reputational risks.

It is also likely that Qatar — like many other countries — wanted to find some pathway to de-escalating the violence and horror in Gaza. This deal is not a resolution, but a temporary pause, hostage exchange, and humanitarian access are first steps. As Vox’s Jonathan Guyer pointed out, the truce is an opening, not the end point. “More diplomacy is needed now. Four days of pause isn’t enough.”

That is likely the next test for Israel, Hamas, the United States, and, so it seems, Qatar.

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