Thursday, February 08, 2007

What the Saudi-Palestinian meetings could lead to

With the meetings in Mecca between Fatah and Hamas under the sponsorship of the Saudi king still in their preliminary stages, there are interesting variations in the way Arab critics of the Saudi regime see this. Everyone agrees that the more proactive Saudi stance is new, and that it represents a margin of maneuver that has been granted to them by the American administration. Where views differ is in how the Saudis will use this.

Two heavyweight critics of the Saudi regime are willing to give the Saudi Palestine initiative the benefit of the doubt, within different limits. Abdulbari Atwan in Al-Quds al-Arabi sees the Saudi regime as having been given limited specific tasks by the Americans, first to lure Hamas out of the Iranian orbit, and secondly to pacify the Palestinian security picture ahead of the next appearance of Condoleeza Rice in the region, at a scheduled summit with Abbas and Olmert in Jerusalem later this month. Atwan prefaces his remarks with a historical overview of Saudi regional strategy since its opposition to Nasserist Egypt, and continuing through its support for the overthrow of Saddam, the top stragetic priority, he says, being always enmity to any rival for regional leadership. And in that context, any "accomplishments" by way of supporting the Palestinians are going to be extremely limited, says Atwan.

Joseph Samaha, writing in Al-Akhbar, takes a more existential approach. He agrees that the Americans have given the Saudis a "narrow margin" to operate in, but he says that isn't necessarily the end of the story. First, he notes that the fact the Americans have given the Saudis any room for maneuver at all reflects the "period of weakness" the US regime is going through, suggesting this could be a fluid factor. But more important: Suppose, he says, that the current Mecca meetings are successful in putting in place a joint Hamas-Fatah government of national unity, and that the Saudi regime is seen as having been the sponsor, something that isn't completely out of the realm of possibility. That would bring with it certain responsibilities, and the first one would be that Saudi Arabia should see to the lifting of the economic blockade, and second would be getting the Europeans to alter their conditions for resumption of financial and other assistance. These would be genuine accomplishments, Samaha says, but at the same time, the result would be to confront the Saudi regime with the real "touchstone" of regional leadership, and that means a program for freeing the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation.
The least that can be exected [of the Saudi regime] is that they announce a roadmap for reaching that conclusion [freedom from the occupation], or at least that the Arab regimes will stand by their minimum obligations to work for that end. ...Which means saying: This is our proposal for an agreement, these are the options, and these are the pressure-tactics we will use to convince people, and this is what we will do if it is rejected. Anything less than that belongs in the realm of rhetoric and not of policy. Anything less than that isn't worthy of a sovereign government, and certainly not of one that feels itself to have been given a regional role...
Putting it another say:
That means the measure of success or failure for the Saudis in this initiative isn't going to be the lack of any preference or taking of sides between this Palestinian faction or that. Rather the test will be whether they do in fact show preference and take sides on the side of the Palestinians in their enormous efforts to free themselves from the occupation.
And to put it even more clearly than that:
The measure of success will be how far [the Saudi regime] will go in preparing for a gradual confrontation with the powers and the nations that bar the Palestinian people from their rights, and that means first and foremost the United States of America.
At the moment, Samaha concedes, we have no indication whether the Saudi regime has made up its mind on this important issue. But there's nothing wrong with waiting to see.

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