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The death of neutrality?

The death of neutrality?

As wars rage in Gaza and Ukraine, neutral states like Qatar struggle to chart an independent course

Reporting | Global Crises

In recent months, Israeli officials have gotten into the habit of equating Hamas with ISIS. This framing has obvious benefits for Israel, which hopes to garner global sympathy by comparing its enemy to a group widely viewed as the pinnacle of early 21st century evil.

But it also leads to a thorny question. If Hamas is indeed as bad as the Islamic State, then why should its leaders continue to find shelter in multiple Arab states?

In the case of Qatar, where Hamas’s political leaders have been based since 2012, the answer is pragmatic. Israel needs a reliable mediator in order to reach a deal for the return of Hamas-held hostages. Doha has already shown its worth by facilitating talks that secured the release of 105 hostages during a week-long ceasefire in November.

But that arrangement may have an expiration date. Israeli security officials have threatened to kill Hamas leaders wherever they are, even if that means an attack on Qatari soil. More moderate Israeli voices argue that Doha’s arrangement with Hamas simply can’t last.

“The United States and Israel still need to lean on Doha to use its leverage with Hamas to achieve some essential wins — even if Qatar must ultimately cut ties with the organization,” Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli security official, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs.

As wars rage in Gaza and Ukraine, neutral states are coming under increasing pressure to pick a side. Switzerland, once thought of as the prototypical global referee, has joined sanctions on the Kremlin and even closed its airspace to Russian planes. Finland has joined the NATO alliance, and Sweden could follow suit by the summer. Qatar — long seen as the ideal Israel-Hamas mediator — may soon have to pick between its American patron and the Palestinian militant group.

This is natural to some extent. When it comes to neutrality, war is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. Belligerents almost always view their conflict in terms of true good vs. total evil, a framing that neutral states call into question by their very existence.

“Under just war theory, neutrality is not possible,” said Pascal Lottaz, a professor at Kyoto University and an expert on neutrality. “Whenever good fights evil, not fighting evil is equal to being evil.”

Yet war-fighting states have long leaned on neutrals as mediators, especially when military force shows limited chances of success. So what happens if the neutrals disappear?

Switzerland by any other name

In some ways, Qatar came upon neutrality by accident. The tiny Gulf state was seen as a Saudi dependent until the mid-1990s, when it embarked on an ambitious plan to protect its security by making friends with just about every other country in its fractious region.

A few years into this project, Doha realized that it now had a significant competitive advantage. “It allowed them to be strategically positioned to act as a conduit between actors that didn't otherwise talk to each other,” said Mehran Kamrava, a professor of government at Georgetown University Qatar. Pragmatic as they are, Qatari officials played to their strengths and started to pitch themselves as an Arab Switzerland.

By the late 2000s, Doha had already mediated major peace talks in Chad, Sudan, and Yemen. Despite crises stemming from the Arab Spring and a later spat with its Gulf neighbors, Qatar’s reputation for neutrality has stuck. Its diplomats have led high-profile talks between the U.S. and its most bitter enemies and even helped secure the release of Ukrainian children taken to Russia.

Of course, Doha isn’t neutral in the traditional sense. For states like Switzerland and Austria, neutrality is a formal commitment to stay out of the fighting that allows them to preserve their security without going to war, according to Lottaz. The arrangement is passive: If you don’t mess with me, then I won’t mess with you.

Qatar’s version of neutrality is both less formal and more ambitious. Like traditional neutrals, Doha’s primary goal is to stay out of danger in a conflict-prone region. But a second key objective is to raise Qatar’s profile such that the tiny state can have an influence over major geopolitical disputes without losing its independence.

This helps explain why Qatar’s highest officials often participate directly in mediation. When Hezbollah threatened to tank negotiations during a Lebanese political crisis in 2009, the emir personally called Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and asked him to pressure his ally to break the deadlock.

This type of neutrality relies on a stream of diplomatic fictions. Yes, Qatar has a major U.S. military base on its territory, but that doesn’t make it a member of the Western bloc. Yes, Qatar hosted Taliban leaders, but that doesn’t make it an Islamist ally. In a black and white world, Doha is infuriatingly gray.

In practice, Qatar takes every chance it gets to build geopolitical leverage, backstopped by the country’s seemingly endless supply of liquid natural gas. This brings us to Doha’s relationship with Hamas.

Qatari officials say they invited Hamas’s political leaders to Doha in 2012 at the behest of the Obama administration, shortly after the militant group fled from Syria amid tensions with Assad. (The earliest Hamas-Doha ties date to 2006, when the Bush administration asked Qatar to open communication channels with the group.) Qatar jumped at the opportunity to both improve ties with the U.S. and improve its competitive advantage as a mediator. But that wasn’t enough to shield the Gulf state from criticism after the Oct. 7 attacks.

U.S. officials undermined Qatar in the days following the attack by pulling out of a Doha-mediated deal through which Iran got access to billions of dollars in frozen assets following a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap. Hawkish voices in Congress and the American press also leaped to condemn Doha for supporting Hamas, using as evidence Qatar’s policy of paying civil servants in Gaza (with Israel’s approval).

Andreas Krieg, a security studies professor at King’s College London, says this is mostly bluster. He describes the rhetorical pressure on Qatar as little more than a “circus in Washington to be seen as being supportive of Israel no matter what.” The U.S., Krieg says, has not taken any concrete steps to pressure Qatar on this front. Rather, Washington has given Doha extra leeway to pursue talks. And even if Hamas is somehow destroyed by the war, Qatar will be a prime candidate to mediate with whatever new Islamist movement takes its place, Krieg argues.

Only time will tell. Qatari neutrality could face a deep crisis if Israel follows through on its pledge to hunt down Hamas leaders “in every location.” But Qatar is nothing if not pragmatic, and Kamrava of Georgetown predicts that Doha’s leadership would gladly assent to kicking out Hamas leaders if it meant strengthening ties with the U.S., the most powerful state over which it has significant leverage.

The question we’re left with is whether this is good for America. Mohamad Bazzi of New York University argues that it’s not. “[I]t would be a mistake to force Hamas leaders out of Qatar,” Bazzi wrote in a recent op-ed. “[T]hey would probably go to Iran, Lebanon or Syria – and Israel, the US and Europe would have a harder time negotiating with them indirectly.” In other words, kicking Hamas out of Qatar would likely make one of the world’s most complex conflicts that much more intractable.

Cold wars and hot peace

Qatar’s problems are a microcosm of trends playing out across the world today. The UAE and Turkey have brokered major deals between Russia and Ukraine — deals that less independent states could never have pulled off — and the West have largely repaid them with sanctions and condemnation.

To some extent, it should come as little surprise that powerful states balk at neutrality. “It’s usually the stronger party of the two belligerents that will put more pressure on the neutrals,” Lottaz said. “The weaker one, the one that has more to lose, usually has more to gain from keeping others neutral.”

He points to the Ukraine conflict as a case in point. The U.S. and its allies condemn neutrality toward the war both on moral grounds and because they see their side as stronger. Russia, for its part, knows that it can benefit more from states remaining neutral than it ever could from its allies voicing their support for Russian policy.

Some states have managed to dodge angry powers by keeping a low profile, as in the case of Oman, a rarely mentioned Gulf state that played a crucial role in the talks leading up to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. But quieter neutrals are not exactly quick to get involved in intractable conflicts that don’t affect their vital interests, leaving them outside of most issues entirely.

Qatar, by contrast, seems to revel in the chance to take on well-known conflicts, even when — as in Israel-Palestine — the chances of success are limited. Neutral states, Lottaz reminds us, are intimately involved in the causes they mediate. To the extent that Doha views its mediator image as crucial for its security, it will aggressively seek out leverage points in every conflict it can.

This worked reasonably well when the U.S. was the only true great power on the world stage. But aggressive neutrality is a tougher sell today as Washington has come to view its ties with both Moscow and Beijing in increasingly zero-sum terms. The dawn of a new cold war has given states some room to balance these powers against each other, but the space for forceful independence — especially for smaller states like Qatar — has begun to shrink. A few hot wars have certainly not helped.

So is neutrality dying? It’s tough to say for sure. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that powerful states will miss it when it’s gone.

Then-Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (front R) and his wife Amal (second row C) walk with the late Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (front L), during a welcoming ceremony at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on October 23, 2012. REUTERS/Mohammed Abed/Pool

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