The meaning of Mecca

The Saudis now have to face the danger of an Iranian-backed Shia regime in the west.

Mecca summit 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Mecca summit 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
'You people are talking about yesterday's Middle East, not about the new realities of today and tomorrow," my friend, a respected Jordanian politician, told me when I visited Amman earlier this week. "Your failure in Lebanon last July was a wake-up call not only for you, but for all of us moderate Arabs." He gave the example of Saudi Arabia, which has become a key player in our region. "Could anyone have dreamt not so long ago that the Saudis would be doing what is happening today in Mecca with the Palestinians?" He went on to answer his own question. Before your war last July, he said, the real attitude of the Saudis - spoken in the intimacy of their palaces and not publicly - towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was "a plague on both their houses." They did not want to get mixed up in what they considered was a hopeless situation. Their attention was fixed on the danger emanating from the east, and they had no time for Palestinians and Israelis. Iran and the Shia reawakening had them transfixed. With a large Shia minority mainly in the oil-saturated eastern region of Saudi Arabia, the Saudis feared the worst. "If I were an Iranian," my friend said, "I would name the central boulevard crossing Teheran after President George W. Bush, for he handed Iraq over to the Iranians on a silver platter, without them having to pay a single dollar for it. For Iran, a Shia government in Iraq was a dream coming true." But for Saudi Arabia it was a nightmare becoming a reality. In their eyes, the weight of the Shia political presence in the Gulf area threatens the stability and, indeed, the regimes of the Gulf. Weak Bahrain, for example, has a Shia majority but is ruled by a Sunni dynasty. The Saudis fear that all along the Arab shores of the Gulf the Shia could be stirring, motivated by the fact that both Iran and now Iraq are in militant Shia hands. "That was the situation up to last July," my friend said, "and then came your war, and its consequences." Shi'ite danger suddenly appeared on the western horizon, and not only in the east. "You can argue whether you won or lost the war," he said, "but the fact is that Hizbullah is still armed to its teeth, and is threatening to overturn the moderate government in Lebanon and replace it with a Shia-dominated one, and that would affect the entire Middle East." The threat in the Gulf region is still as great as ever, but the Saudis along with the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Arabs from the Emirates and the other Gulf states now have to face the danger of an Iranian-backed Shia regime in the west as well. For this new danger, Saudis, Jordanians and other Sunni Arabs blame Israel, for not having succeeded in implementing its own war objective, loudly and repeatedly declared by our premier and other ministers, of removing the threat of Hizbullah. That failure made the moderate Arab states realize that "a plague on both your houses" was no longer an acceptable policy for them to follow with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We have to heal this festering wound on our body, for otherwise it will endanger all of us," they said. This was the reasoning that led the Saudis to take the unprecedented step of putting their own prestige on the line in Mecca. They cannot contemplate a failure, and take it as a given fact that an agreement will be reached between Hamas and Fatah on a unity government for the Palestinians. That government will not, in all probability, accept all three of the conditions that the Quartet and Israel have imposed as a condition for doing business with a Palestinian government - recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and an end to violence. Hamas will in all likelihood refuse to say explicitly that it recognizes Israel but might say that recognizing previous agreements with the Jewish state is in effect tantamount to recognizing it. Can such Talmudic reasoning be accepted by us? If truth be told, we don't need their recognition. Hamas needs to be recognized by Israel much more than we by them. But that is not the point. We cannot be more lenient with Hamas than the Quartet. Yet if the Saudis have their way in Mecca they can be expected to use their not inconsiderable influence in Washington and elsewhere to change the rules of the game. They, and the other moderate Arab states will doubtlessly agree to support the unity government financially, which would undermine the boycott the Quartet and we have placed on Hamas. Moreover, they can be expected to do their utmost to convince the Quartet to follow a much more activist policy with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio; for them, the ideal would be an imposed solution. What should our position be towards a unity government that does not explicitly recognize Israel? Should we ignore it even if the Quartet, including the United States, finds sufficient cause to accept a de facto, non-declared recognition of Israel? The ideal would be if we could find a magic wand that would make Hamas disappear, for Hamas stands for everything bad - fundamentalism, terrorism, to mention just a few. Alas, such magic wands are hard to find. So we are left with two alternatives: refuse to deal with the unity government despite its willingness to open negotiations with us for peace and despite its acceptance by the Quartet, or to act pragmatically and do what is best for Israel, which is to end the stalemate that in effect only leads to a continued deterioration of the situation and, in its place, enter into negotiations with the unity government. We have to do what is best for Israel. That means to give hope to the people by negotiating with the Palestinians for a two-state solution with permanent borders, and not to go on looking for that magic wand that unfortunately does not exist!