The story that has captivated the Saudis more than any other over the last few days is not the Palestinian leadership summit in Mecca. It relates rather to the imprisonment of Fatima al-Timani, a 37-year-old Saudi citizen who was forcibly divorced from her husband, Mansour, by order of a sharia court. Fatima's family sued for the divorce, which the court ordered after it was convinced that Mansour had given Fatima's parents misinformation "regarding his tribal lineage."
The divorce requires Fatima to return to her parents' home, but Fatima - the mother of a 3-year-old boy - prefers sitting in prison to carrying out the court order. In the meantime, these are tempestuous times in Saudi Arabia: A women's petition against the verdict and against the law that allows couples to be divorced against their wishes, on the basis of complaints by family members, has already made its way to the palace.
By contrast, the "last chance" summit, as several Arab-language newspaper headlines have referred to talks between Hamas political bureau head Khaled Meshal and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that took place in Mecca this week, has generated a minimal media response. The important Bahraini newspaper Akhbar Al Khaleej ("Gulf News") mentioned the summit in a not particularly large article on its foreign-news page, while Egypt found it important to highlight the comments of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh before his takeoff from the El Arish airport, in which he thanked the country for its efforts to foster a cease-fire between Fatah and Hamas, "which 'allowed for the trip to Saudi Arabia."'
A local problem
The Palestinian Authority, and its conflict with Israel, is not considered a strategic threat until someone uses it for leverage. One such example could be heard from the head of the Saudi intelligence services, Mukran Bin Abed El-Aziz. He said at a meeting on the security of the Gulf states in December, which took place in the Bahraini capital of Manama, that the Iraq problem, Israeli nuclear weapons and Iran's nuclear program are the biggest threats in the region. The Palestinian problem was not even mentioned. That's because when the approach is that Egypt is the conflict mediator and Saudi Arabia provides the financial backing, the problems of the PA are a local matter, nothing more than a "legitimate battleground against Israel."
The feeling that it is possible to control the Palestinian front comes from the experience of having seen the worst of the intifada pass by without there having been waves of protest in the Arab world; even the economic blockade that has been imposed on the PA has not been earth-shaking. For instance, when Meshal arrived in Saudi Arabia for his first visit after the Palestinian parliamentary elections, in March of last year, he received a Saudi commitment for continued aid, but with the understanding that Hamas would stick to the "Arab consensus" - that is, the agreements and decisions of the Arab League, including the Saudi initiative that was accepted in Beirut in 2002. The frozen language Meshal used did not impress the Saudis, who assumed that Hamas "understood what it was liable to lose."
But it has been less than a year since then, and Saudi Arabia has come to realize that both it and Egypt are likely to lose control of the Palestinian issue: Hamas has found a non-Arab track that allows it to continue to exist. In addition, Fatah has not managed to pull off a political revolution and bring down the Hamas-led government. This realization led Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to tell the Kuwaiti paper Al-Siyassa last month that "it is appropriate for the Arabs, and no one else, to resolve the Palestinian problem. There are those who trade in our problems... and base the rationale for their involvement on our "interest in the Palestinian problem."
Abdullah's comments were a reference to Iran, which had promised to give $240 million to the Hamas government. Saudi Arabia has turned a blind eye for years to private and institutional donations worth tens of millions, and possibly hundreds of millions, of dollars that have been channelled to Hamas through Saudi Arabia; it has also ignored Hamas representatives' activities within the kingdom. However, Riyadh has suddenly seen how this tolerant attitude is causing it to lose its political leverage.
The domino theory
Iran's entry into the world of Palestinian funding has not transformed Hamas into a pro-Iranian group or one that is controlled by Tehran, but has given it a great deal of political room to maneuver. The international blockade of Hamas, which Arab states have been a party to, has suffered a major breach, and Saudi Arabia wants to close the gap.
What worries the Saudi king is not Iran's active involvement in Palestinian affairs, but rather the domino theory of Iranian influence: the concern that this is yet another political notch in Iran's belt, coming on top of its intervention in Iraq and Lebanon. In Iraq, Shi'ite control is turning Iran into the government's natural ally; as for Lebanon, King Abdullah was personally distressed by the assassination of his good friend Rafik Hariri, and does not like the support Iran is giving Hezbollah, which is preventing the country's political rehabilitation.
The attention that Saudi Arabia is paying to the PA is seen as a way of attempting to contain the Iranian domino. The Saudi mediation initiative is therefore viewed as one that must succeed, or as being what Arab-language media are calling the Palestinians' last chance: the ultimate test of Saudi prestige. Observers are giving the summit a good chance of success, with some even anticipating it becoming a repeat of the success of the 1989 Taif Accord that brought the civil war in Lebanon to an end, and created a new political structure there. However, the current goings-on in Mecca cannot erase the memory of the failure of the previous summit in that city last year, in which the Iraqi factions were supposed to - but didn't - reach an agreement.
In addition, the preliminary meeting that the Saudis held with Haniyeh and Abbas on Id al-Adha did not generate the anticipated momentum. Since then, the violence in the streets of Gaza has only intensified. At the moment, Saudi Arabia and Egypt cannot make decisions for the Palestinians, but can only mediate. This is because the threat of the Arab family of nations is becoming increasingly empty, following a year-long Arab blockade of the PA; only monetary temptation could, "possibly, bring the PA back into the fold."
In order for the money to be granted, though, the Palestinians must adopt the magic formula that will allow Saudi Arabia to get out of its support of the blockade: some kind of recognition of Israel, whether direct or implied, and some kind of tortuous acceptance of the 2002 Saudi initiative - or at least an agreement to honor previous deals signed by the PA and Israel. Therefore, the question is not just how the Palestinian leaders will run negotiations between them, but what would be the minimal terms of an agreement that would allow the Arab states to finally "renounce the historic boycott of the PA."
One may also ask: How much money will it cost Saudi Arabia to reach this renunciation? During the intifada, Riyadh contributed half a billion dollars to a special fund that was meant to assist the PA. Some say that the price of an agreement now will be double that, if not triple. But money will be no obstacle when Saudi Arabia is fighting with Iran over the matter of prestige.
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