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Saudi Statesmanship.

Saudi Arabia, ruled by a one-family royal regime, is the ultimate status-quo power. It is in character for the Saudi royals to suffer an anxiety attack over events in their region - and to want the fires doused before they flare into an uncontrollable conflagration. On Feb. 6-8 they focused, with success, on the incipient Hamas-Fatah civil war.

They see a rising Iran with hegemonic ambitions pursuing nuclear weapons; a US superpower blithely toppling regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq which once contained the would-be hegemon; sectarian warfare in Iraq which could easily spread across borders; and a closely affiliated government in Lebanon under assault from the Shi'ite movement Hizbullah, which is backed by Iran and the Alawite/Ba'thist dictatorship in Syria is betting on a Hizbullah victory in Beirut.

The Saudis must contain the ambient chaos. In the past, the Saudi princes bought safety for themselves by paying off regional thugs and relying on a US security umbrella. But the bungling of the Bush administration - by empowering the Iranians, al-Qaeda in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Hamas among Palestinians - left Riyadh with little choice but to play its own cards in quest of regional stability. So far, the Saudis are playing those cards well.

The other Arab states supported the Mecca talks. Careful preparations preceded the arrival in Mecca of the Palestinian leaders. Mediators already got the two sides to agree on almost all the crucial points concerning the distribution of ministerial posts and the programme of a unity government. High-level talks between Saudi and Iranian officials smoothed the way for a Fatah-Hamas compromise which Tehran is not about to sabotage.

For all the diplomatic finesse shown by the Saudis in this matter and in their efforts to avoid a civil war in Lebanon, they have not ignored the rougher edges of statecraft. The recent Saudi-induced decline in the price of crude oil, coming just as UN sanctions and US banking restrictions on Iran were taking effect, appears to have had the desired impact on Iran's rulers. There is reason to believe the recent arrival of a second US carrier task force in the Persian Gulf and more recent indications of a third US carrier group expected in the area soon were consonant with the Saudi strategy.

The Saudi royals are acting as peacemakers for Palestinians and between Palestinians and Israel; among Lebanese; between Persians and Arabs; and among Iraqis. The Boston Globe on Feb. 9 said: "This is what President...Bush should have been doing the past six years".

The Fate Of Feb. 19 Summit: Officials have set the bar so low for a US-Israeli-Palestinian summit in Jerusalem on Feb. 19 that even a modest step towards a revival of the moribund peace process is likely to be spun as a giant leap. The Bush administration, bogged down in Iraq and assailed in Congress, badly wants to hear some good news from the Middle East. The timing, however, could hardly be worse.

Abbas's embrace of Hamas has raised questions of the PA president's suitability as a peace partner, while in Israel a crisis of confidence in PM Olmert has cast doubt on his ability to break the deadlock. Secretary Rice who arrives in Israel on Feb. 18 for bilateral talks before the Feb. 19 tripartite meeting, said peace efforts were "obviously more complicated because of the uncertainties surrounding the [Palestinian] national unity government". Ms Rice flew to Baghdad on Feb. 17 as Iraqi PM Maliki said his plan for the security of Baghdad was thus far successful (see ood2-IraqWTOfeb19-07).

The Feb. 8 Mecca deal has left questions unanswered, on how far another Hamas-led government would go to fulfill international principles, notably that it renounce violence and abide by existing agreements. Unless Western donor states are satisfied, an embargo on direct aid to the Palestinian government will remain in force. In the hiatus between the Mecca accord and the government being sworn in, the US and its Quartet partners and even Israel have adopted a policy of wait-and-see.

The FT on Feb. 17 quoted a "senior Israeli official" as saying: "We don't like what's happened on the Palestinian side but we don't want to shut the door completely. We will still try to work something out with Mahmoud Abbas".

The Israeli side has quashed expectations, particularly in Europe, that the Feb. 19 summit might focus on skipping some of the more contentious elements of the Quartet's "road map" plan and head to final settlement talks, offering the Palestinians what diplomats call a "political horizon". The FT said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni "appeared tempted by the idea but it is not one that Mr Olmert would have much chance of selling to the right wing of his quarrelsome coalition". The FT added: "Palestinians are now so buoyed by the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement that they see themselves as the most confident player within the trio of Israel, the US and the PA".

The FT quoted Ziad Abu Amr, "an independent likely to be named as foreign minister in a new unity government", as saying: "Mecca gives President Abbas the freedom to negotiate. It was clear the US wasn't in favour of a Hamas government. But if the Americans are realistic, the best thing is to deal with Hamas in a constructive way".

Fatah officials and independents are said to believe that Hamas, eager to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the international community after a year of failed government, has moved towards the mainstream, despite its reluctance to recognise Israel. Abu Amr said: "Fatah didn't embrace the Hamas political programme. I would say it's the other way round".

Israel tends to see the glass as half empty rather than half full. The FT quoted the Israeli official as saying: "The fact is Hamas moved a little bit, which is positive. But we don't think it moved far enough. Mahmoud Abbas moved towards Hamas, which we don't like".

Palestinians officials hope their political accord would turn the Bush administration away from a perceived policy of seeking the ouster of Hamas, by force if necessary. The White House's attempts to boost Fatah's military strength were set back last week when Congress froze $86m destined to bolster Abbas in his conflict with the Islamists.

The FT quoted Fatah MP Ala' Yaghi as saying: "Hamas is now committed to the international rules. What more does the US want? If they don't want Hamas, it means they don't want peace on the ground".

Israeli PM Olmert, who was in Turkey on Feb. 15, said on Turkish TV he was "not certain that the full scope of this [Mecca] agreement is clear to anyone. The initial signs are not very encouraging". Israel and the US have refused to deal with Hamas; they classify it as a terrorist group. Hamas will continue to hold the largest number of posts in the new cabinet.
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Title Annotation:Saudi Arabia stops civil war in Palestine
Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7PALE
Date:Feb 19, 2007
Previous Article:The Palestinians - Hamas Wins Over Fatah In A Mecca Agreement Brokered By Saudis.
Next Article:Saudi-Israeli Contacts.

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