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Is the main struggle in the Middle East today between radicals and moderates, or between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims? The United States puts the emphasis on the former, while Saudi Arabia stresses the latter idea.
That's how to put into context the Saudi effort to mend the violent conflict between the two main Palestinian groups, nationalist Fatah and Islamist Hamas. The Saudis want to steal (or perhaps one should say "buy") Hamas away from Iran and Syria, which US policy sees as the radical and Saudi policy views as the Shi'ite camp.
The resulting Mecca agreement signed last week provides for a Palestinian coalition government in which both groups can keep their own policy positions. From the Palestinian viewpoint this is a cynical PR ploy. To the West, it can be pretended that the new Palestinian Authority regime is more moderate - despite the fact that Hamas continues to dominate the government while maintaining its genocidal aim of wiping Israel, and most of its people, off the map.
Indeed, the PA will continue to tolerate, even cheer the daily firing of rockets at Israeli civilian targets and the launching of terrorist attacks. Those responsible will not be warned, criticized, stopped or arrested. This makes the PA a state sponsor of terrorism.
The basic plan is to create a coalition government for the PA, control of which was won by Hamas in the January 2006 election. There would still be a Hamas prime minister and a majority Hamas government, but with some cabinet posts - notably, foreign affairs and finance, the critical ones for raising Western money and support - going to Fatah. An independent would receive the Interior Ministry, which supposedly controls the Palestinian armed forces.
BUT LET'S return to the Saudi view because this debate over "defining the enemy" is going to be absolutely critical to the fate of the Middle East, which nowadays means also the fate of the world.
Today, the main issue in the region is the attempt by Iran and Syria to gain control of as much of the Middle East as possible. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida are old news. Their ideology and program has been adapted by Teheran and Damascus to be used far more effectively to mobilize support.
The main fronts in this struggle are Lebanon, where this axis uses Hizbullah, and Iraq, where its assets include both the Sunni insurgents (who look to Syria) and the most extreme Shi'ite groups (whose patron is Iran).
By putting together the Mecca deal, the Saudis cleverly showed three things:
Unlike Iran and Syria, the Saudis can work with others and mediate. Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah tend to put everyone else into two categories: those who can be intimidated and those who have to be killed. The Saudis are, if anything, flexible.
The Saudi advantage is money. Promising $1 billion to Hamas and Fatah if they signed on the dotted line, enough money to finance the PA for a year and pay all those officials who haven't been getting their salary due to Western sanctions, is quite an incentive to go along.
The Saudis can get things done. While Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah shout a lot of slogans and profess undying love for the Palestinians, the Saudis did something to help them materially.
THERE ARE also, however, several problems with the Saudi strategy. First and foremost, the Saudis may be able to rent Hamas, but they cannot buy it. In recent years, Hamas has moved increasingly closer to Iran, the main source of its money; and Syria, where it has its headquarters. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections, this was a big victory for the axis and an encouragement for radical Islamist forces in general.
Yet in its ideology, extremism and anti-Americanism, Hamas is closer to Iran and Syria than it is to Saudi Arabia. Thus, the Saudis will be subsidizing some radical terrorist groups in the battle against other ones, and even this will be only a very temporary victory.
In addition - and this is a real pity - the Saudis are not going to use the leverage earned by their brokering a compromise to Hamas's advantage and providing lots of money as a way to push or even force Hamas toward a more moderate position. By undermining Western sanctions and rewarding Hamas's intransigence, the Saudi deal makes any diplomatic progress on an Israeli-Palestinian solution even more remote.
Coupled with the Palestinian deal, the Saudis are also pursuing a wider strategy:
They can greatly damage Iran by keeping the price of oil low. The Iranian economy is in terrible shape - in fact the US sanctions have been very successful in limiting investment there; and Saudi Arabia can do more to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue than any single country by threatening to further cut into Iran's income.
trying to see if a deal could be worked out with Syria in which Lebanon could be stabilized. The Syrians set their terms too high and the effort failed.
supporting Lebanon's government against the Hizbullah challenge to overthrow it.
The Saudis have offered to make the Iraqi government "honorary Sunnis" (the regime is overwhelmingly Shi'ite) by appealing to them to be loyal to the "Arab world" rather than Iran. The problem is that the Arab states are treating Iraq so badly, including supporting terrorist insurgents there, that it makes it harder to win Baghdad over.
Finally, the Saudis want to assure Israel that they are not seeking a confrontation and that their interests are parallel in many ways. At the same time, though, Saudi policy is strengthening the most extreme Palestinian forces. Still, recognizing the wider regional picture, the Israeli government has refrained from criticizing the Saudis and their Mecca deal.
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