The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has led to a frenzy of lobbying in the US, and much of it has targeted influential Jewish organisations and invidividuals. But is this really the best way to win over the Jewish community in the US?
The dueling Washington lobbyists arrayed on either side of the Gulf feud—pitting Saudi Arabia and a few other Arab states against Qatar—have generated their own Beltway theater.
This week in New York, the region’s leaders and diplomats will deliver public appeals and admonish their counterparts. Hopefully they will listen, as well.
The Gulf dispute has many causes, some of them long-simmering between Qatar and its neighbors. They involve disagreements over Iran and Syria, over unfriendly broadcasts, accusations of subversion, and more.
Under the impression that the Trump administration would be sympathetic to their concerns, last year Saudi Arabia and friends unleashed a full-on blockade against Qatar, followed by an anti-Qatar campaign replete with a phalanx of Washington lobbyists and policy wonks.
Qatar has responded in kind, with the added gambit of outreach to some of the more right-wing American Jewish leaders, many of them openly anti-Arab and even outside the Jewish mainstream. But stereotypes of Jewish influence—and President Trump’s actual Jewish connections—have made this an attractive if dubious channel. And many of these real or self-styled community leaders are happy to be courted.
What has been the impact on Jewish opinion and, by extension, US policy? And what might be a more effective approach going forward?
On Syria—between the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, Turkey and the West, and most Gulf states with various rebels or terror groups, and Qatar trying to strike a balance—Americans generally have no idea which way is up.
For Jews, specifically, the primary concern in the region is for Israel’s security, which directly and indirectly turns on Iran and on Russia more than on any Arab player. The second concern, humanitarian and geo-political, is for the thousands of Syrian civilians still in danger and for the millions displaced.
On terrorism, the Saudi government was the first to invest heavily in repairing its brand after the 9/11 attacks, and for good reason; stressing the joint fight against terrorism helped assuage some American misgivings.
Since the blockade of Qatar, however, Gulf states are spending millions to portray each other as sponsors of terror, whether focused on Hamas and Hezbollah or Al Qaeda and ISIS (Daesh).
For Americans, this has had an unintended consquence off buttressing the perception that “the Arabs”—not Saudis, or Qataris, or Emiratis, or even Palestinians—represent a dangerous and imminent threat.
This reinforces the xenophobia evoked by the Trump administration’s so-called travel ban against mostly Muslim countries. Regardless of who’s ahead in the lobbying horse race, this narrative undermines all Arabs and Muslims.
There is a big difference between the Saudis’ transactional charm-and-slander offensive, which Qatar has understandably reciprocated, and a more long-term cultural outreach to Americans and specifically to American Jews.
Although Bahrain sides firmly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the current Gulf impasse, it has been engaging American Jews for over a decade.
This broader approach helped position Bahrain as an honest broker and a gateway between the Gulf and ultimately the state of Israel. This has included Jewish participation in the security-focused Manama Dialogue (myself included) and other community delegations to Bahrain, convening meetings and events with American Jewish leaders, and sponsoring of inter-religious initiatives between Muslims and Jews.
It’s true, when the "Arab Spring" tested Bahrain’s commitment to democracy and human rights a few years ago, all that goodwill – and the US naval base in Manama – helped cushion US criticism of the harsh response. But that had little to do with any Washington lobbyists or publicists on retainer.
Qatar’s tactical outreach to hawkish American Jews backfired when word leaked out and when rejectionist Zionist groups turned out to be receiving indirect Qatari funding. Even worse, these middle-men, a mix of itinerant amateurs and high-stakes insiders, provoked ridicule and easily ran afoul of ongoing federal investigations.
This expensive chapter provides a case study in the risks of allowing stereotypes to shape and influence strategy. This time it was Qatar, but many other governments share a similar misperception of US political dynamics.
Bahrain’s Jewish outreach has been conducted mostly in the open and without intermediaries - two important factors for impacting American public opinion.
It makes some sense to curry favor with Jews who are perceived as close to President Trump, especially since his Middle East policy has skewed sharply in favor of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda: recognising Jerusalem (not just “West Jerusalem”) as Israel’s capital, looking the other way on West Bank settlements, defunding refugee and other assistance to Palestinians, and closing the Palestinian mission in Washington.
But right-wing community leaders who are seen “palling around” with Qatar or Saudi Arabia risk the very credibility for which they were sought out for.
With the budding friendship between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, the Saudis have effectively leap-frogged over any Jewish go-betweens. But their extensive investment in lobbyists and influential think tanks has increasingly narrowed into an anti-Qatar rather than pro-Saudi brand. Whatever merit there is to the Saudi grievance against Qatar, Doha’s in-kind counter-offensive should not have surprised anyone.
At some point in the future, perhaps after Washington’s current chaos settles down, the Gulf states will either reconcile or settle into a manageable status quo. Then they will have to start rehabilitating the Gulf brand in Washington.
The Saudis can drive that next phase by increasing investment in Palestinian infrastructure in both Gaza and the West Bank, and by ensuring that Arab states offset Trump’s suspension of Palestinian funding. And if the Crown Prince truly wants to disrupt the Middle East, and Washington, he can move beyond rhetorical support for the late King Abdullah’s Arab Peace Plan and inject momentum for normalising Israel relations toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Having pushed the Qatar tensions over the line in the first place, Riyadh might offer de-escalation as part of a new joint effort on behalf of the Palestinians.
Rather than competing with Saudi Arabia over who’s the bigger supporter of terrorism, Qatar can influence Washington, including right-wing Jews and Evangelicals, by doubling down on its “Gaza first” (and Gaza only) deal between Hamas and Israel. This plan didn’t win out two years ago, but both Netanyahu and Trump’s “peace team” now seem to prefer it.
Such actions will cost billions instead of the millions being spent on Washington lobbyists. But the impact on both sides of the Atlantic will be infinitely more conducive to each country’s standing and strategic interests.
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