4 march 2007
The Mecca Agreement
Saudi Arabia succeeded in distancing Hamas from Iran
A. Mahjar Barducci
The Mecca agreement is not just a starting point for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. A careful look at the agreements reveals that between the lines there is a wider picture and a major plan. In fact, the bilateral Mecca agreement can be better described as a strategic understanding between three parties: the PLO, Hamas and Saudi Arabia. Reaching this accord among the Palestinians is an important element of the Kingdom's policy, which is why the Saudis were so keen to achieve it.
The summit in Mecca had two agendas: one public and one hidden. The public agenda was to reach a Hamas-Fatah agreement that would enable negotiations with Israel and prevent an all-out civil war among the Palestinians. The hidden agenda and the more important one was to strengthen the Sunni camp vis à vis Teheran.
For Riyadh, the main goal of the summit was not to have Hamas recognize Israel, as demanded by the Quartet. After all, Saudi Arabia itself has never directly recognized Israel. What Saudi Arabia needed was an opportunity to pull Hamas out of the Iranian sphere of influence, and the Mecca agreement served this purpose.
All Sunni governments were concerned about the new political alliance between Hamas and Iran. In the last months, Hamas has nearly become a branch of the Iranian Shi’ite regime, receiving funds, training and weapons from Tehran. Furthermore, Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al, based in Damascus, visited Teheran several times in the recent months, and met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and with Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Arab commentators were talking about the new “fatal attraction” between Hamas, a Sunni group, and Iran, a Shi’ite Islamic Republic. In face of the widening rift between the Sunni world and Iran, King Abdullah, the Guardian of the Two Holy Places, who also perceives himself as the patron of the Sunni Arab world, had to do something to separate the two lovers by bringing Hamas back home to the Sunni ranks.
This was not just a religious matter for the Saudis. The Saudi Kingdom is seriously considering the possibility that a war against Iran may break out. Hence, it was vital for Saudi Arabia to ensure that Hamas, an important regional player, would be on the Sunni side. This Saudi strategic view is shared by the entire Sunni Arab world, and especially by Egypt. However, only Saudi Arabia was able to bring about an agreement between the Palestinian groups.
In the last months, Egypt, which used to be the key mediator in the Middle East, has lost this status to Saudi Arabia, which is now the only credible mediator in the region. President Hosni Mubarak has been weakened by the continuous rebellion of the Egyptian civil society against the regime, and exhausted by his campaign of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's mother organization. In these circumstances, the Palestinians were unable to give Mubarak the role of mediator. Saudi Arabia was the natural alternative for several reasons.
First, as a Wahabi kingdom, Saudi Arabia had the religious legitimacy to sort out a conflict between a Sunni Islamist group and a Sunni political group. Second, Saudi Arabia, which regards Iran and its proxies (i.e. Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon) almost as enemies, was also trusted by the West to carry out this mission.
Saudi Arabia succeeded in distancing Hamas from Iran. But the Palestinians did not need that much prompting in the first place. In fact, Mash'al has long regretted his strong alliance with Iran. In the last months, Hamas was abandoned by the whole Arab world; the West cut off all the financial aid to the Palestinian government and Fatah’s military units, encouraged by the political support of Arab states, set out to crush Hamas's stronghold in Gaza. Moreover, in the last three weeks, Mash'al has seen Khamenei ready to sell out Syria in order to resolve the mounting crisis in Lebanon and ease the increasing Western pressure on Iran regarding its nuclear program. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, on his part, gave an interview on ABC in which he tried to flatter Washington, and offered any assistance to the U.S. in order to stay in power and remove the threat of an international tribunal for the Al-Hariri assassination.
Mash'al has therefore understood that allies such as Khamenei and Assad are not so reliable, and that it would not be inconceivable for Assad, in order to save his own skin, to kick him out of Damascus. In these circumstances, Hamas could not possibly reject Saudi Arabia's help.
In order to bring Hamas back into the Sunni camp, Saudi Arabia offered it a reasonable package of incentives. However, in order to reach a compromise between the two Palestinian groups, King Abdullah needed the help of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Saudis explained to Abbas that a compromise with Hamas must be reached, since there are larger regional considerations at stake.
The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt stated, on a recent visit to Washington, that he was optimistic about the Mecca agreement despite Hamas's ties with Iran, since these ties, he said, "could change". Abbas shares this belief. Saudi Arabia told Abbas that by giving up some of the demands of the Quartet, he could avoid the transformation of Gaza into an Iranian base. The compromise looked promising. Abbas prefers to have Hamas in the government, aligned with the Sunni camp, over constantly fighting Hamas as an Iranian ally. So Abbas had to pay a price.
The Mecca agreement has two strategic dimensions: organizational and political. The organizational dimension is another price that Abbas had to pay, namely agreeing to include Hamas in the PLO. This is a demand of Hamas for years, since the PLO has monopolized the status of sole representative of the Palestinian people. In Arafat's time, Hamas demanded a representation of 40% in all PLO institutions and bodies, but with rais Abu 'Amar, they had no chance of getting it. Now, However, Abbas will have to find a way to bring Hamas into the PLO, without letting it take over the organization.
The political dimension of the agreement is the mutual compromise reached by the two sides in order to end the present Palestinian crisis. On a snowy day at the Peace café in Washington DC, the Palestinian Ambassador Afif Safieh emphasized the great achievement of the Mecca agreement in managing to stop the civil war in Gaza. For the PLO, internal stability means a chance to move towards a national unity government and to keep Hamas under control. For Hamas, ending the civil war means survival, since they know that, sooner or later, they would have been crushed by the Muhammad Dahlan's Fatah gangs. Hamas leaders have actually stated that “we had to stop [the war], since we could not go on this way.”
Hamas and Fatah have also reached an agreement on the new Palestinian Foreign Minister, and on continuing the calm [tahdia] with Israel. Furthermore, Hamas has accepted the Saudi plan to establish the Palestinian State in the 1967 borders. Hamas has also agreed to “honor” previous agreements signed by the PLO, including agreements with Israel (but not to "commit itself" to these agreements, a dispute over the terms that lasted many days). Though this may sound like indirect recognition of Israel, Hamas is still refusing to recognize it explicitly and directly. However, Hamas did give Abbas the go ahead and the support to resume peace talks. Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, stated that this was as much as the PLO could get from Hamas. So the Mecca agreement should be considered a success for the Palestinians and the Arab world.
Israel and the Quartet will now have to decide what to do about it. On the one hand, the Mecca agreement is a success for Israel as well. The fact that Hamas has come back to the Sunni camp, and is keeping the tahdia, makes Hamas less of a problem for the Israeli PM, Ehud Olmert, who is concerned about the possibility of having an Iranian terrorist base in Gaza, right on Israel's border. On the other hand, it is a major problem for Israel to begin negotiations with a joint PLO-Hamas partner, and to make territorial concessions, when Hamas has not recognized it. As a matter of fact, Hamas could stop the ceasefire at any time and launch of terrorist attacks in Israel. Abbas is a serious partner for peace, but Hamas still has to prove that it is. However, if Abbas won’t manage to convince the Quartet to start a dialogue with the PLO, without a Hamas recognition of Israel, nothing, including the Road Map, will move ahead. By now, the Saudi plan remains the only viable alternative, but if Israel and the United States do not accept the new Palestinian alliance, the peace process will remain stuck. Israel needs guarantees, but Hamas is not ready to give them.
A year ago, there might have been a chance for peace, but the international community missed the opportunity. Before the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2005, which brought Hamas to power, there was only Abbas and the PLO. At the time, Abbas begged to start peace talks, but everyone scorned him and doubted his ability to deliver, for no valid reason. Now, after the legislative elections, the Quartet is obliged to handle the peace process again, this time in much more difficult conditions. Hence, it seems that the saying “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” does not apply only to the Palestinians.