A Saudi Oar in West Bank to Block Jordanian Influence

Masked by the brouhaha pro and con a Palestinian state and the Saudi peace plan – and the lip-service to both – is a diplomatic process that has been quietly re-activated since the Bethlehem standoff deal fathered by European officials floundered.
It hinges on an alternative Palestinian solution, based on shared Jordanian-Israeli supervision of a self-ruling West Bank.
The European formula petered out embarrassingly when, first Italy, then the rest of Europe, refused to accept the 13 master terrorists released from the Church of Nativity as exiles. As a makeshift measure, the 13 were dumped in a Larnaca hotel in Cyprus.
Monday, May 13, the EU foreign ministers were scheduled to assign a number of European countries for the dispersal of the banished Palestinians. This they failed to do – or even agree on the exiles’ status. After EU officials pronounced the 13 terrorists “free men”, no European government is in a hurry to accept men with long, violent records as free agents – men who could moreover face extradition demands from the countries of their victims. The other 26 terrorists deported to Gaza, instead of being tried as stipulated in the deal, won a heroes’ welcome instigated by Yasser Arafat.
Similarly, strong doubt has been thrown on the Saudi peace plan. Monday, May 13, to the Saudi crown prince Abdullah’s undertaking to rein in Palestinian suicide operations was met with defiant responses from the Jihad Islami and even the Hamas, which has been lavishly supported by Riyadh for many years. Both vowed to continue the suicide campaign against Israelis. Israeli defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer disclosed Sunday, May 12, that such attacks are being foiled at the rate of one per day, making another major military counter-terror operation unavoidable.
The Bush administration gave both the European and Saudi initiatives a chance. Since they were programmed to be accompanied by progress towards Palestinian statehood, their failure has placed the issue of Palestinian independence on a back seat, according to debkafile‘s Washington sources. Even secretary of state, Colin Powell, its strongest advocate, speaks in terms of “eventual” statehood.
In any case, Saudi concerns lie in a different direction.
Saturday and Sunday, May 11 and 12, Prince Abdullah, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Syrian president Bashar Assad met in the Sinai Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, claiming they were ushering in direct Saudi involvement for the first time in the Palestinian problem. Oddly enough, given that agenda, the Arab ruler with the largest Palestinian population, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, was not present. Neither was Yasser Arafat. According to our sources, the real theme of the three-way summit had little bearing on the Palestinian-Israel conflict, but focused rather the mounting tension between Riyadh and Amman. The Jordanian King’s non-invitation tied in with the eight Saudi armored brigades, beefed up by surface to air and anti-tank missile units parked on the Saudi-Jordanian border without an official explanation, in the third week of April.
That Saudi military concentration is still in place and still on the ready.
Notwithstanding the published reports of improved US-Saudi relations following the crown prince’s visit to the Bush ranch in Crawford and the two rulers’ decision to work together on the Palestinian issue, the Saudis are deeply worried by the sight of one of their deepest-seated fears coming true.
The Bush administration has returned to its plan for fostering the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as its strategic, political and military linchpin in the Middle East before and after the offensive against Iraq. Abdullah II returned home only this week after nearly two weeks in Washington.
For Riyadh, America’s Hashemite Plan touches the long and still sensitive roots of a historical feud.
In the 1920s, Ibn Saud, founder of the ruling dynasty, drove the Jordanian king’s ancestor, the Hashemite Sherif of Hijaz out of Arabia, thus gaining control of the holy places of Islam in Mecca and Medina, as well as the Red Sea town of Jeddah. The British installed one branch of the House of Hashem in Baghdad and a second in Amman, in the newly-created Kingdom of Transjordan.
Fifty years later, in November 1979, the Saudi princes sent a distress call to Abdullah’s father, the late King Hussein, for help in subduing an Islamic fundamentalist Wahabi invasion of Mecca and revolt against the Saudi throne. Hussein agreed, but his price was the restoration of some Hijazi lands to Hashem sovereignty, including the Prophet’s Tomb in Medina. The Saudi throne, which draws much of its legitimacy from its standing as guardians of the Muslim Holy Places, turned Hussein down. Ever since, the Saudis have regarded Jordanian intentions as regards Saudi territory with lively suspicion. They fear the incumbent king will be encouraged to revert to his father’s plan of extending the Hashemite kingdom to the Hijaz, exploiting the war on world terrorism and Osama bin Laden’s Saudi legions to take a bite out Saudi territory.
That fear prompted two Saudi counter-measures:
1. The concentration of more than half of its fighting strength on the Saudi-Jordanian frontier, as a deterrent to the Jordanians.
2. The crown prince’s offer to the Americans to undertake an active role in the West Bank.
While many Israelis interpreted this offer as further pressure to force Israel into dealing with Arafat and accepting a Palestinian state, Riyadh’s real motive is to thwart Jordanian attempts to take control of the territory.
The next contest, signs of which have begun to surface, will therefore not be over US-Saudi efforts to impose on Israel an unwelcome Palestinian solution, but between the Americans, Jordanians and Israelis, on the one hand, and the Saudis and Palestinians, on the other.
3. At the Sharm summit, crown prince Abdullah sought Egyptian and Syrian backing against Jordan. Which is why the Jordanian king was not invited.
4. The Palestinian who was invited is Muhamed Dahlan, the preventive security chief, terrorist mastermind and strongman of the Gaza Strip. Nabil Shaath was there too to lend the Dahlan presence a semblance of respectability.
According to debkafile‘s exclusive Palestinian sources, Prince Abdullah and President Mubarak offered Dahlan logistical and intelligence backup as well as financial largesse if he would head the campaign to block Jordanian influence in Palestinian Authority bodies on the West Bank.
One indication of the contest building up appeared Monday, May 13, when Yasser Arafat emerged from six months barricaded in Ramllah for visits to Bethlehem,Jenin and Nablus, on the West Bank. The grudging crowd welcome accorded him was the outcome of pro-Jordanian pressure. Arafat’s supporters fought back by spreading a false rumor there and then that the West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, who leads the pro-American Jordanian faction, had collapsed from a heart attack.
That night, five masked men, presumably Rajoub’s followers, beat up Hassan Asfour, the most fiercely anti-American Palestinian minister, outside his Ramallah home. Asfour comes from Gaza and is close to Dahlan. The violence against him was also a broad hint from West Bank groups that the Gaza faction had outstayed its welcome.
The issue of a Palestinian state is therefore not the hottest item of the Middle East crisis at this moment. Still at the outset is an inter-Arab contest over control in the West Bank – between Saudi Arabia backed by Egypt and Syria, and Jordan. The statehood issue will have to wait until this contest is played out.

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