updated 10/9/2006 7:53:27 PM ET 2006-10-09T23:53:27

Qatar’s foreign minister headed to Gaza on Monday to talk with Hamas as part of a new and aggressive role for the tiny Gulf nation: pushing mediation efforts on Mideast issues ranging from Sudan to the Palestinians to the stalemate over Israeli prisoners.

Qatar’s efforts are expected to infuriate regional heavyweights Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which the United States has been relying on to try to stifle Hamas and other radical groups.

On Sunday, the minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al Thani, traveled to Damascus, the Syrian capital, to meet exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to try to end the standoff between the Islamic militant group and the rival Fatah faction.

Moussa Abu Marzouq, Mashaal’s deputy, acknowledged Qatar presented various ideas during talks Monday but declined to give details. “There is an in-depth discussion about the Qatari ideas, but so far we haven’t made a reply,” he told The Associated Press.

Qatar is a major supplier of cash to Hamas.

Bid for Palestinian government
Palestinian officials in Gaza said Qatar is proposing a six-point plan to end the infighting between Fatah and Hamas and establish a Palestinian unity government. Qatar also is trying to gain the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Under the plan, Hamas would agree to form a unity government that will accept “the international resolutions and agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization” — including those that recognize Israel, which Hamas has so far refused to do.

The plan also calls for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the U.S.-backed Quartet peace plan, and an end to violence between the Palestinians and Israel.

The Qataris also are suggesting the Palestinian factions should reactivate the PLO — dormant since the early 1990s — to carry out any peace negotiations with Israel, apparently as a way to allow Hamas to remain in the government while avoiding any direct dealing with Israel.

It was unclear, however, if Hamas would agree to any of the ideas. In Gaza, al Thani met late Monday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and then headed to talks with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

No progress was reported in the meeting with the Palestinian president, but Abbas said, “Nothing has failed ... work is under way.”

If it were to succeed in its efforts, Qatar would push aside Egypt, which has been mediating for months to get Hamas to agree to a deal that includes releasing Shalit and forming a unity government.

Qatar is also making a bid to defuse the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region. On Monday, Sudan’s presidential adviser, Mustafa Osman Ismail, said Qatar will initiate a mediation effort over Darfur, including inviting warring factions to a conference in Doha.

Checkbook diplomacy?
In both cases, Qatar is believed to be using checkbook diplomacy to buy influence. The oil- and gas-rich emirate is a major supplier of cash for Hamas and a major investor in Sudan’s impoverished economy.

The new initiatives come at a time when Qatar has been at odds with many Arab neighbors.

At an Arab foreign ministers’ meeting in June, al Thani fiercely opposed Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which had accused the Lebanese Hezbollah of triggering the summer war with Israel.

Earlier this month, Qatar also angered Jordan when it voted against a Jordanian prince to head the United Nations. Jordan recalled its ambassador to Doha in protest the move, which it said violated an Arab agreement to vote for Prince Zeid al-Hussein, who was among five candidates to succeed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Qatar apparently is trying to reassert itself as a key player in the region in the face of challenges from other major powers, especially Saudi Arabia. Relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are cool, and several times this year their foreign ministers have exchanged unfriendly gestures.

Saudi Arabia complains Qatar is using its widely watched Al-Jazeera news channel to broadcast anti-Saudi programs. Qatar is preparing to launch a pan-Arab daily newspaper soon that is expected to rival Saudi-owned papers like Al Hayat.

“Qatar feels squeezed by the Saudis and obsessed with fear that the kingdom will swallow it one day,” said Mohammed Saeed Idres, of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.

Saudis, meanwhile, accuse Qatar of undermining Arab unity.

Last week, Israeli media reported that Israel’s prime minister had met with a top Saudi official to discuss regional issues, an encounter widely seen as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Qatar, which hosts an Israeli trade mission and whose foreign minister frequently meets with Israeli officials.

“What the Qataris are doing does not serve the Arabs’ interests but rather serves others,” wrote Al Hayat columnist Jamil al-Thiabi. “To deal with the challenges it faces, the Arab world needs more coherence ... not political hypocrisy.”

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