Meet the frustrated negotiators seeking a Gaza ceasefire

DOHA, Qatar—Five months after mediating a weeklong ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Qatar’s top diplomat confessed his frustration that the conflict in Gaza continues to rage.

“It’s frustrating when you do a lot of efforts, and unfortunately, the parties don’t reach an agreement,” Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Al-Khulaifi, the country’s minister of state, said Monday. “The more efforts that we’re putting on the table, the more that we’re expecting the parties [to get] closer and closer towards their agreement. Unfortunately, the reality does not reflect that.”  

For nearly three decades, this tiny, energy-rich monarchy has built up its practice of international mediation in a bid for security among its larger neighbors and for respect on the world stage. Its efforts are marked by eponymous trade negotiations (the 2001-15 Doha Round) and diplomatic agreements: the 2008 Doha Agreement that averted civil war in Lebanon, the 2020 Doha Accord between the Taliban and the Trump administration. 

But no crisis has proved more intractable than the war that has followed Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Al-Khulaifi said at the 2024 Global Security Forum here. (Defense One is a media partner of the forum, which is organized by the Soufan Center.)

“This case is precisely one of the most difficult and complicated cases that we faced, historically,” he said. “And that’s for two main reasons. The first one is the extreme lack of trust between the two sides. That makes the job of the mediators even more difficult: to try to find a breakthrough or bridge the two sides and fill the gaps to reach an agreement. The second difficulty, or challenge, that we’re facing is simply the military operations on the ground, which makes it even more difficult for the mediators to get the parties together.”

Al-Khulaifi said his team—a group with expertise in a wide range of fields, from economics to law to security—also has human reactions to the advances and setbacks in negotiations.

“We got used to, in the last few months, to pass periods of ups and downs. At certain periods, we become a little bit more optimistic that we’re getting closer to agreements. [In] other scenarios, we get a little bit down due to other factors, some of which I have elaborated already, such as the military operations—and especially Rafah.”

Israel’s push into Rafah brought the negotiation process to a “stalemate,” Qatar’s prime minister said last week at a different global confab here. But that’s just one of the many bumps in the road. 

In April, U.S. lawmakers upped the pressure on Qatari mediators to complete some sort of deal. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, told Doha to coerce the Palestinian group’s acquiescence, perhaps by “cutting off funding to Hamas or refusing to grant Hamas’ leaders refuge in Doha.” Failing to do so, Hoyer said, would mean that “the United States must reevaluate its relationship with Qatar.”

The Qatari embassy took umbrage, saying Hoyer’s threat was not “constructive” and adding: “Qatar is only a mediator—we do not control Israel or Hamas.”

Asked on Monday about harboring Hamas officials in Qatar’s capital city, Al-Khulaifi suggested it was a practical matter: “For us to have a solid mediation, we want to make sure that our line of communications with both sides are effective and direct.”

He also said his government works hard to keep its political views separate from its work as global negotiators.

“We totally distinguish between our pure political position when it comes to the cases that are surrounding us, and our mediation efforts,” he said. “Therefore, we cannot really mix up these two things together. When it comes to the political position, our opinion is very clear, but when it comes to our offering and our help and assistance and resolving disputes, this is something that we will continue to do.”

As the Qatari minister spoke in Doha, a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court was requesting arrest warrants in The Hague, on war-crimes charges for Israel’s prime minister and defense chief and three Hamas leaders.

Al-Khulaifi was not asked directly about that development, but he said Qatar relies on international courts and other organizations “to reflect on those important cases, and present the realities and those issues.”

“We’ve also intensified our engagement with several countries right now around the globe, asking, of course, to assess the current situation, but most importantly, to play an effective role in helping and assisting finding a breakthrough.”

In general, Al-Khulaifi said, his country has several basic guidelines for its mediation work.

“As a matter of principle, Qatar will never initiate a specific mediation procedure without receiving the written approval of both sides. That’s a specific condition that we follow,” he said. “We design our work very professionally, and we make sure that we illustrate to each party their obligations and their rights when it comes to those mediation efforts.”

Asked whether being a rich nation helps, Al-Khulaifi said, “So I’m not going to talk about the budget, but I’m gonna definitely tell you that it takes skills and abilities and the right amount of expertise, among many other factors.”

Nice hotels, of the sort that fill Doha’s glittering West Bay neighborhood, don’t hurt. 

“Of course, resources and providing a platform—a comfortable platform—for the disputing parties to come and stay and discuss those concerns are essential, but we know that this is not going to resolve the issue. The problem is not about the size of the room that the parties will sit in or the view that they’re going to look at, but most importantly the process and the points of considerations,” he said. 

Onstage, Al-Khulaifi, a former lawyer, evinced relish for his work as a global negotiator. As for Gaza, he said he takes heart from last year’s ceasefire.

“In spite of the challenges, we managed to secure an agreement last November which helped us to get at least 109 hostages, and also 240 detainees out, and to bring somehow seven days’ period of calm for the people,” he said. “We want to achieve that again.”

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