Behind the Headlines: Celebrating Shabbat in Qatar, U.S. Jews Find Emir Backs Peace

While gathered in a hotel suite here, 24 American Jewish leaders conducted Orthodox Shabbat services on a recent Friday night and Saturday morning.

For perhaps the first time in the history of this tiny Persian Gulf nation, the portion of the week – Parshat Zahor – was read from a Torah scroll.

“We had no trouble whatsoever bringing in kosher food or a Torah from Israel,” Carolyn Green of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said of the services in the Qatari capital.

“The Quataris couldn’t have been more accommodating,” she said, adding that the hotel “provided us with private rooms for preparing and eating our Shabbat meals and even provided brand-new dishes and utensils.”

For almost all the participants in the Presidents’ Conference delegation, Shabbat was the high point of a three-day visit last week at the personal invitation of Qatar’s ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

“This was an historic visit, and a clear sign of Qatar’s growing acceptance of Israel and Jews,” said Leon Levy, conference chairman. “This was a statement by the Qutaries that they are firmly committed to the peace process.”

As the American Jewish leaders learned, this tiny country is taking a lead among Arab nations along the Persian Gulf in developing relations with Israel, expressing support for the peace process and opposing terrorism by militant Islamic organizations.

During their red-carpet visit, which was publicized in the Qatari press, the Jewish leaders met with several government officials, most notably the emir, Hamad.

The emir, whom many consider a political maverick, recently agreed to sell natural gas to Israel – the first economic agreement between Israel and a gulf state.

Oil-rich Qatar boasts the world’s third largest natural gas reserves.

He also has introduced some democratic initiatives, such as relatively free press, and has instructed Muslim clerics to denounce terrorism.

But by all accounts, Hamad is on shaky ground.

Just three weeks ago, he foiled a coup attempt by supporters of his father, Sheik Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, whom he deposed last June.

Bordering Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with Iran looming just across the gulf, Qatar is extremely vulnerable, both politically and militarily.

According to a U.S. official in the gulf, the emir wants American assurances that it will come to Qatar’s defense, should the need arise.

Although the United States has already stationed some military equipment in Qatar and plans joint U.S.-Qatari military exercises, the emir would like more cooperation.

“You have to understand our situation,” he said. “Our population is less than 100,000, and our neighbors are scared, hesitant about the peace process. We are a small nation that supports peace and we are ready to do more.”

In accepting the invitation to visit Qatar, the American Jewish leaders said they had no illusions about the emir’s agenda.

“The emir has made a great effort to convey to us his desire for U.S. friendship,” Levy said after a meeting with the Qatari leader.

“He is surrounded by despots in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other countries” and would like the American Jewish community “to intercede on his behalf,” Levy said.

The delegation raised its own interests with the emir.

Meeting in the splendid royal palace, straight out of a fairy tale, the emir responded favorably to questions about Qatar’s intention to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Qatar, he said, “has played a big role in ending” the secondary and tertiary Arab boycotts against Israel.

In October 1994, the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – announced an end to their participation in the secondary and tertiary boycotts.

Under the terms of those boycotts, Arab nations refuse to do business with companies that trade with Israel, as well as with third-party firms that trade with those companies.

“Here, we receive many Israelis, even those traveling on Israeli passports. As long as the U.S. supports us and we feel this support, we will continue to support the peace process,” the emir said.

Hamad said Qatar plans to exchange interest sections with Israel, but he did not offer a timetable.

“We try to do our best, although we do have some difficulties from our brothers in other countries,” he said.

In addition to their meeting with the emir, the Americans were surprised to learn that one of the country’s most influential Islamic leaders wanted to address them.

The leader, who asked that his name not be published, openly denounced recent Hamas suicide bombing attacks in Israel and assured the group that he is actively working to stop Islamic violence.

About three years ago, Qatar outlawed all charitable donations to Hamas – including funds for the organization’s extensive network of social services, he said.

The cleric said he asked the Israeli government for the names of needy Muslim families so that the donations could be sent to them directly.

“I have ties with the Hamas leadership, although they are obviously not as strong as they once were, and I have told them that there is no Islamic justification for terrorism,” he said. “I have told them that they cannot call a jihad (holy war) without all Islamic leaders calling for a jihad as well,” he said.

The cleric added that in the near future, Qatar intends to send “missionaries” to the Palestinian autonomous regions in an attempt to dissuade Muslims there from committing terrorist acts.

“Islam is a religion on peace, not violence,” he said.

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