Zionists, anti-Zionists and the war of words over Qatar

Qatar, which is reportedly paying a public relations firm $50,000 month to "improve ties with the Jewish community worldwide", has accused the UAE of employing "Zionists" to organise an anti-Qatar conference.

news item published in Arabic by the Qatari-owned al-Jazeera on Thursday began:

"The London Centre for Public Affairs has revealed that pro-Israel advertising companies and the Zionist lobby in America are preparing to hold a conference against Qatar in London on the 14th of this month.

"The centre announced ... that the conference is funded by the UAE government and will be organised by a Zionist propaganda company headed by Steve Rabinowitz, an expert in public relations and director of Bluelight Strategies, one of the strongest advocates for Israel in America."

Since May, a vicious war of words has been raging in the Gulf, with Qatar on one side of the quarrel and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain (plus Egypt tagging along) on the other. In the often-hypocritical propaganda campaigns both sides have accused each other of supporting terrorism but accusations of supporting Israel and/or Zionism have occasionally been thrown into the mix too.

Qatar's 'good' relations with Israel

The opening shot in the battle came when someone hacked the website of Qatar's government news agency and planted a fake news item quoting a fictitious speech by the Qatari emir. The effect of this was to damage the emir in the eyes of Gulf citizens, creating a pretext for the rumpus that followed.

One remark attributed to the emir in the fake story was that Qatar has "good" relations with Israel. This is broadly true but it's not something Gulf rulers usually boast about, for fear of a hostile reaction from public opinion. The remark formed only a small part of the imaginary speech but, given the context, it's likely that the reference to good relations with Israel was included in the expectation that Arabs would view it negatively.

Leaked emails

Since June, in what many view as Qatari retaliation for the hacking of its government website, mysterious sources have been leaking emails from an account belonging to Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador in Washington. Several of these have focused on somewhat tenuous connections between the ambassador and Israel.

Ambassador Otaiba: emails leaked

The first batch of leaked emails highlighted Otaiba's friendly relations with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank which has been heavily funded by several American Republicans who are also strong supporters of Israel.

In August, Middle East Eye reported another leak which showed Otaiba had been in email contact with Uzi Rubin, a former brigadier general in the Israeli forces. (Middle East Eye is one of several websites whose closure was demanded by Qatar's adversaries in a 10-day ultimatum which expired more than two months ago.)

Controversial conference

Next week's conference in London, entitled "Qatar, Global Security & Stability", is claimed to be about "envisioning a true approach to democracy, human rights, press freedom and counter-terrorism in Qatar". Others see it as part of a plot to destabilise Qatar's emir and replace him with someone more amenable toward Saudi/Emirati policies. It is fronted by Khalid al-Hail, a Qatari exile who is said to be funding it himself.

Qatari exile Khalid al-Hail

The conference has come under attack from the London Centre for Public Affairs (LCPA), a mysterious and apparently Qatari-inspired organisation with a bogus address and a false phone number. In a protest letter sent to the British parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, LCPA described the conference as "a hoax by the UAE and its lobby and pressure groups".

The additional claim, attributed to LCPA and reported by al-Jazeera – that the event is being "organised by a Zionist propaganda company" – seems to have been intended only for Arab consumption. Al-Jazeera reported it in the Arabic section of its website, but not the English section. There is also no mention of it on LCPA's website, which is entirely in English.

Enter Rabinowitz

press release issued on behalf of the conference directs media enquiries to Jason Nisse of The Nisse Consultancy (a British PR firm) and Steve Rabinowitz of Bluelight Strategies in the United States.

Rabinowitz, who was director of media planning at the White House under President Bill Clinton, has long-standing ties with the Democratic Party as well as various Jewish organisations. During the 2016 presidential election he was involved in Jews for Progress, aimed at persuading Jewish voters in swing states to support Hillary Clinton. During the past week he has posted several times about the Qatar conference on Twitter.

Steve Rabinowitz:

When Rabinowitz established Bluelight in 2014, BuzzFeed reported that it would be focusing on "progressive issues, both foreign policy and otherwise". Explaining the choice of name, Rabinowitz said: "The blue is progressive politics in America, and you know, the Jews can think it's Jewish too if they want."

Qatar seeks Jewish support

Meanwhile last Tuesday, under the headline "Qatar reaches out to Jewish community", a website specialising in news about PR and marketing reported that Qatar has signed a $50,000-a-month contract with Stonington Strategies which is headed by Nick Muzin, "a doctor, lawyer and Republican strategist who is active in Jewish affairs".

The article described Muzin as "the driving force behind a coalition of more than 50 groups, including tea party, evangelical and Jewish organisations, to oppose the Iran nuclear deal" and quoted him as saying:

"Engagement with Qatar can only be in the best interests of the United States and the Jewish community, as we cannot allow Qatar to be ostracised by its neighbors and pushed into Iran’s sphere of influence."

The article continued:

"For Qatar, which is under an economic and political blockade by Muslim states, Muzin will advise on ways to build a closer relationship with the United States and improve ties with the Jewish community worldwide.

"He will explore opportunities for political, cultural and economic cooperation with the U.S. and Israel, especially in the areas of trade, real estate, job creation and technology."

Over at Bluelight, news of the Qatari contract infuriated Rabinowitz who told the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz:

"Qatar has its own billion dollar world-wide whitewash, I mean PR effort, that includes its own television network. Half-a-million-dollars a year to court American Jews is chump change — and we Jews are the chumps if we buy any of it." 

He added that Qatar is "the one country that alone is funding Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nusra Front".