They Are Edged out of Main Middle East Arenas

This week, Saudi Arabia again shilly-shallied over a Middle East crisis.

“For Iran to back a coup that happened in Lebanon and support it will have an impact on its relations with all Arab countries,” said Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal Tuesday, May 21.

Strong words – except that the next day, Riyadh took the opposite tack.

The Saudi King Abdullah invited Iran’s ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, to attend the International Islamic Dialogue Conference in Riyadh, commending his “great stature in the Islamic world…”

Now, Rafsanjani has no pretensions to religious stature. His chief claim to importance in Tehran’s power stakes stems from his high position close to the ear of Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Saudi invitation was therefore taken in the Iranian capital as signifying that the Saudi monarch does not intend quarreling with the Iranian supreme ruler over the unfortunate developments in Beirut.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources report that Riyadh stayed firmly out of the Qatari effort to bring the warring factions together in Lebanon, the upshot of which was to confirm the Shiite Hizballah’s position – and therefore that of Iran – at the top of Beirut’s political tree for years to come. The only Saudi response was to withdraw the bulk of its estimated seven billion dollars on deposit in Beirut banks to Far East establishments. The money had been kept there for use to ensure the stability of the pro-Western, pro-Saudi government in Beirut, which is now on its way out.


Saudi wealth does not translate into leverage


Time and again, the Saudi monarchy has demonstrated a striking inability to translate its vast wealth into political leverage on a regional level. Riyadh is capable of small, insignificant steps, such as backing the Palestinian Sunni Hamas or Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, but when it comes to major plays, the Saudis take a back seat.

This predisposition has deepened of late.

In the past, the Saudis were drawn to act when the stability of the throne or their oil resources came under threat. The Shiite Hizballah’s victory in Lebanon imperils both. If the slightest Shiite advances in Iraq fan flames among the Saudi Shiite minority in the Eastern oil-rich provinces, so much more must a Shiite takeover of Lebanon.

Yet this time, Riyadh stood aside – even though its passivity may well stir the Shiites to defiance – and not only in the desert kingdom: in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, Shiite minorities are just waiting for a chance to rise up and In Yemen, a Shiite uprising funded by Tehran is already astir.

Egypt’s response to the Shiite advance in Lebanon is no more proactive than Riyadh’s. There, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, supreme leader of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood commended the Shiite “Hizballah resistance.”

The term “resistance” is common currency on the tongues of Hizballah and other Muslim terrorist groups and denotes their strong links and common objectives, which Akef’s comment underlined.

The Brotherhood’s most active operational arm in the Middle East, the Sunni fundamentalist Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip, employs military advisers from Hizballah. Akef regards the outcome of the Shiite militia’s battle in Lebanon as a model which Brotherhood branches in Egypt, Jordan and Syria must emulate for the sake of expelling pro-Western, secular regimes.


Egypt‘s Sunni Muslim Brotherhood’s affinity with Shiite Hizballah


Cairo’s efforts to mediate a long-lasting truce for the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Israel are seen by the Brotherhood’s supreme leader as a maneuver that serves to entrench Hamas rule; this connects directly to Hizballah’s gains in Lebanon and encourages the Brotherhood’s aspirations in other Arab countries.

By a strange irony, the only Arab figure to view this development as a major peril is al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.

In his latest audio-taped bulletin, released Sunday, May 18, bin Laden denounced all the Arab leaders for failing the Palestinians in their fight for liberation, but mentioned only one as an object of contempt. He denigrated Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah along with Iran’s drive for expansion through the Middle East.

(See HOT POINTS below)

Most inexplicable of all is Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert‘s action in jumping up Wednesday, May 21, to announce peace talks with Syria through Turkish mediation – regardless of Damascus’ role as a bridge linking Tehran to Lebanon and the Palestinians, and a channel for Iranian weapons to Hizballah.

Without going into the self-serving motives of all three leaders, Olmert, Assad and Turkish prime minister Tayyep Erdogan for creating this “peace” distraction, certain manifestations are underscored by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East analysts:

1. Israel and Turkey, America’s closest Middle East military allies, embarked on the peace venture with Syria against Washington’s will. President George W. Bush is fuming over a step which he regards as a major obstacle to his policy of isolating Iran and Syria – so much so that Olmert’s visit to Washington scheduled for the second week of June is in danger of being cancelled.

Thursday, May 22, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources reported that the Bush administration is considering cooling its ties with Jerusalem over the Olmert initiative with Damascus.


Bush fumes over Olmert’s Syria peace venture


2. Aware of American anger, Olmert is presenting his initiative publicly as designed to pull Syria away from its pact with Iran and its ties with Hizballah, and deferring a potential Syrian-Israeli clash of arms.

The Turkish-Syrian-Israel diplomatic mechanism is being paraded in Jerusalem as a security instrument for maintaining calm on Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

This is of course a false representation of the facts. For Damascus and Ankara, the diplomatic track has no military dimension and aims at little more than getting Israel out of the Golan and back to the pre-1967 War borders.

The Israeli prime minister is clinging desperately to this track, hoping it will rescue him from the hot water of the corruption investigations in which he is embroiled, and deflect the tide of popular and political dissenters demanding that he step aside.

A powerful voice raised against came from his presumed ally, defense minister Ehud Barak, head of the Labor party and senior partner in Olmert’s Kadima-led government. Barak said in a speech Thursday, May 22, that cutting Syria out of the hostile circle surrounding Israel is a longstanding objective of Israeli policy. However it is best to be realistic; peace is achieved from a stance of strength and self-confidence.

He didn’t have to say outright that both of these attributes have faded since Olmert took office; it is an open secret. The minister went on to say that Syria and Israel know that painful concessions will be required for an accommodation, but the distance to peace is still very great.

The indirect diplomatic tracks with Syria and Hamas initiated by the embattled prime minister are generally regarded as symptoms of his government’s weakness. He has led Israel into the same cycle of passivity as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the US, in the face of Shiite dynamism and Sunni terror.

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