WASHINGTON – US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is correcting comments she made before Congress this summer, now saying the strategic energy-rich country of Qatar “does not fund Hamas,” the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Haley’s reversal, contained in a memo to Congress obtained by BuzzFeed News, comes as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeks to unite competing factions in the Trump administration behind a common policy in the high-stakes Gulf crisis.
Since June, when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a punishing trade and transport boycott against Qatar, senior Trump officials have taken different sides in the feud. President Donald Trump and key aides, including Haley and then-chief strategist Stephen Bannon, initially viewed the dispute as an “opportunity” to pressure Qatar on its alleged support for Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood – support Qatar denies it provides.
Meanwhile, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis view the blockade as a threat to both stability in the region and the US air base in Qatar, which is home to the largest concentration of US military personnel in the Middle East.
On June 28, Haley repeated the claim that Qatar was “funding Hamas” during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, prompting written follow-up questions from congressional staff asking if the United States is aware of Qatari government payments to the group. She responded in writing this month, saying the US is not.
“While the Qatari government does not fund Hamas, it does allow Hamas political representatives to be based in Qatar, which Qatar believes limits Iran’s influence and pressure over Hamas,” Haley said in the memo to House lawmakers.
“Qatar has committed to take action against terrorist financing, including shutting down Hamas bank accounts,” she added.
Analysts said the revised remarks expose the disconnect between State Department policy and White House rhetoric surrounding the diplomatic dispute.
“One moment Haley is bashing Qatar and so is the president. The next moment Tillerson and Mattis are working to end the Gulf feud,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security and a former State Department official.
“These answers were certainly written by State Department staff,” he added. “Haley got up there and bashed Qatar publicly, and then State followed Tillerson’s overall guidance on taking a conciliatory approach.”
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that Haley and Tilleson were ever out of sync, and said the roster of Trump administration officials are working in lockstep together. "The whole US government is united on this issue. We're working hard to support GCC unity, which is critical for stability in the region,” the official said. “At the same time, we encourage countries to take more steps toward fighting terrorism."
Others said Haley’s responses clearly amounted to a retraction. “It sure reads like a reversal in her position to me,” said David Ottaway, a Gulf expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “Maybe she made those earlier charges without knowing what she was talking about. Or maybe she was prevailed upon by State to change her position to be in line with Tillerson's effort to be more nonaligned so he can be more effective in mediating the dispute.”
On Thursday, Tillerson was unable report any progress in resolving the nearly five-month crisis following his trip to the capitals of Saudi Arabia and Qatar last week.
In an interview last Thursday, the top US diplomat blamed the four countries lined up against Qatar, including Egypt and Bahrain, for failing to make progress in the negotiations. “There seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage,” Tillerson told Bloomberg News. “It’s up to the leadership of the quartet when they want to engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear – they’re ready to engage.”
Tillerson has struggled to exert pressure on Riyadh and the UAE across the entire US government. Trump initially said the Saudi blockade was “hard but necessary,” though he later called for the crisis to be resolved. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly backs Saudi Arabia. Over the summer, Haley called the blockade an “opportunity” for the US to clamp down on Gulf countries’ support for terrorism. “I see it as an opportunity,” she said. “It’s a good chance to tell Qatar quit funding Hamas.”
On Monday, Bannon defended the UAE and Saudi position during a speech at the Hudson Institute amid reports that his former firm recently accepted $330,000 from the UAE to run an anti-Qatar messaging campaign.
“Haley’s answers underscore the differences on this issue between the secretary of state, who wants to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the White House, which backs Saudi Arabia 100%,” said Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA officer. “Haley is caught between two competing power centers where the White House has all the advantages.”