Riyadh’s Aim in Mecca: to Replace Tehran as Palestinian Hamas Backer
It is no wonder that Israeli policy-makers have had little to say to the Palestinian reconciliation accord which Saudi king Abdullah brokered in Mecca last week. Israel was shouldered off the stage as a player in Palestinian politics, as was any hope of moderating the Palestinian anti-Israel war, a breakthrough to peace talks – or even a form of long-term coexistence.
Its main outcome was the anointing of Hamas as unconditional king of the Palestinian domain.
This decline in Israel’s standing as a factor in Middle East politics dates back to the Lebanon War and its outcome last summer. If there are to be any accommodations with Israel, the Mecca accord has relegated them to an uncertain future and entirely on Saudi-Hamas terms.
At Mecca, the Saudi monarch had quite different fish to fry: the replacement of Tehran as Hamas’ senior financier and backer. To this end, he dictated a reshuffle in both rival Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah.
The Damascus-based hard-line Khaled Meshaal, who had signed a pact with Tehran, was demoted, as was the second signatory of the Palestinian reconciliation package, the moderate, pro-Western Mahmoud Abbas. Raised in their place was prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas’ political wing. Abbas’ ally, Gaza Strip Fatah commander Muhammad Dahlan, can expect a senior post in the Hamas-led government. Another winner is his business partner, the Palestinian-Kurdish tycoon Muhammad Rashid, who has turned his coat at least twice in two weeks while jostling to regain the influence he enjoyed behind the shoulder of the late Yasser Arafat who died in 2004.
debkafile‘s Middle East sources disclose that Ismail Haniya’s rise to the top of the Hamas tree was plotted during his visit to Riyadh in the second half of January. His audience with the king went on then for three hours, an unusual length for Abdullah’s conversations with foreign leaders. It sufficed for a secret deal to be concluded laying down the elements of cooperation between the Saudi government and Hamas political leaders in Gaza and effacing the effects of the US-led international boycott of the Hamas-ruled Palestinian government. Whereas Washington has so far not commented on this process, Abdullah has used it as a fulcrum for a fresh Saudi Middle East policy initiative.
The Saudi king and the Hamas prime minister agreed on a six-point plan for subsequent incorporation as the core of the Mecca accord:
1. A shared interest in weakening Israel and active collaboration to achieve this goal;
2. This collaboration is based on personal trust between Abdullah and Haniyeh. As middlemen, they appointed Saudi intelligence chief Prince Moqrin bin Abdulaziz and the Palestinian Muhammed Rashid;
debkafile‘s Middle East sources report the Saudi monarch sent his private plane to Libya Tuesday, Feb. 7, to fly Rashid first to Medina then to Mecca as his unofficial royal envoy to the Palestinian summit. Rashid’s role in obtaining the signed accord was crucial, elevating to him to a high albeit unofficial position of influence in the Saudi royal court and in Palestinian affairs;
3. The Saudi throne endorsed Ismail Hanya as Palestinian prime minister on condition that he introduced members of the Fatah young guard, led by Dahlan, to key government positions. This group of factions, which includes the suicidal al Aqsa Suicide Brigades, aspires to take Fatah over from the veteran leaders including Mahmoud Abbas;
4. King Abdullah personally guaranteed full Saudi diplomatic, military and financial support for the Hamas-led Palestinian government;
5. Hamas government members would not be required to recognize Israel or previous peace agreements. No mention was made of violence against Israel or the renunciation thereof;
6. The most pressing goal in Riyadh’s sights was Haniyeh’s personal guarantee to scale down in stages the Iranian and Hizballah presence in Hamas ranks with a view to banishing both from the Gaza Strip. Prince Moqrin is in charge of the quiet understandings accompanying this point of agreement, which also contains a Saudi pledge to take the place of Shiite Tehran and Hizballah by paying for all the weapons and military instructors the Palestinian group needs.
Riyadh thus reverted to its original role as the founder and banker of Hamas, which the Saudis created in the 80s as a Sunni counterweight to the Shiite Hizballah.
It is not at all sure that Haniyeh will be capable of living up to his six-point deal with the Saudi king or whether Meshaal will let him. Haniyeh leads Hamas’ political wing, but Meshaal, who was shunted aside in Mecca, is the master of the military wing. He is capable of ordering Hamas gunmen to challenge Haniyeh and thwart the deal’s execution. This would set off a fresh round of Palestinian factional warfare, which Meshaal and Abbas solemnly vowed in Mecca to halt.
Over the weekend, a delegation of Hamas military chiefs arrived in Gaza from Damascus – presumably to arrest the decline of Meshaal’s standing in Gaza as a result of the newly-reshuffled Palestinian leadership, although this is not confirmed.
No reaction has been forthcoming from Washington to the foursquare financial, military and intelligence backing Saudi Arabia has granted the extremist, jihadist Hamas, with no strings attached. The heads of Israel’s government have clearly not yet digested the fact that an Arab power which its policy-makers had counted on as a moderating, pro-Western Arab force had proved to be the opposite of this. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni appealed in Munich to European leaders not to be in a hurry to accept the Mecca Accord. She ducked the real issues: Saudi Arabia having show its real spots and the continuing passivity of the Bush administration, although Washington had enough leverage in Riyadh to hold the Saudis back from supping with Hamas.