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When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert welcomed the Saudi peace initiative, henceforth to be known as Initiative A, two days ago, he of course was referring to King Abdullah's peace plan from five years ago, which was upgraded at the 2002 Beirut summit to gain the status of an Arab League resolution. But there is another "Saudi initiative", henceforth to be known as Initiative B. It refers to the Saudi initiative to put an end to the civil war in the territories and to get both Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas political head Khaled Meshal to sign onto the coalition agreement. This document, the Mecca agreement, does not obligate Hamas to recognize Israel and accept all agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

A few hours later, Olmert announced emphatically to Abbas that Israel would not recognize the Fatah-Hamas unity government unless it accepted the Quartet's principles. In other words, Olmert spoke up in favor of Initiative A and completely rejected Initiative B.

Israel's various positions on the two initiatives cannot last beyond two weeks from now: once senior Hamas officials in the unity government attend the Arab League summit in Riyadh on March 28, Initiative B and its catalyst, the Mecca agreement, will become an integral part of Initiative A. From then on, anyone who welcomes the Saudi initiative or the Arab League Beirut-Riyadh resolution will be obliged to buy the entire package.

The Quartet, and in particular the Bush administration, is faced with an even greater package, one that wraps up the Riyadh summit with the Baghdad Conference. A failure by the Arab leaders in general and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in particular could cost the U.S. success at the talks on the future of Iraq. Iran's participation in the conference hints at the possibility of a nuclear part of the package.

This will not be the first time that the Quartet, including the Americans, are forced to accept Hamas. In 2002 and 2003, Quartet envoy Alastair Crooke held ongoing contacts with Hamas leaders, including Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, and attempted to promote the "Hudna" initiative. Crooke took pains to report on all his contacts, including meetings his meeting with Meshal in Damascus and Cairo. Mossad head Meir Dagan and Shin Bet security services chief Avi Dichter knew about the contacts, of course, and this did not prevent them from maintaining close contact with him and taking advantage of his liaison services with the Palestinian security forces.

Bypassing the U.S.

This channel was blocked in the autumn of 2003 by the intervention of conservative elements in Israel and the U.S., and Crooke was sent home "for budgetary reasons." Since then he has devoted most of his energies to furthering contacts between the West and pragmatic elements in the Muslim world, including Hamas. In a comprehensive inquiry that he (and his partner, Washington Middle East expert Mark Perry) conducted into the moves that led to the Mecca agreement, Crooke celebrates his victory over the conservatives, led by White House official Elliott Abrams.

The inquiry describes in great detail how King Abdullah foiled Abrams' plan to equip militias headed by pro-American factions with arms and cash and set them on Hamas. The story began in mid-January. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, King Abdullah's national security adviser, convinced the big boss that the time had come to step into the Palestinian quagmire. The king dispatched a special envoy to Damascus to apprise Meshal and his Syrian hosts of the new Saudi initiative to end the civil war and, as a consequence, the economic boycott of the PA. Abbas and Meshal spoke by telephone about the initiative and agreed to aid the Saudis.

Crooke and Perry write that Abbas sent the leaders of the camp opposing the unity government, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Saeb Erekat, on an unnecessary visit to Washington in order to clear the field.

Abbas' greatest worry, however, was that senior PA official Mohammed Dahlan, who was considered the darling of Washington, would undermine the intitiative, or worse still, hijack the unity government when it became clear that it was inevitable. This fear gained strength when Kurdish economist Mohammed Rashid, who had been an adviser to former PA chairman Yasser Arafat and was now Dahlan's patron, told the Israeli and Palestinian media that there was no truth to the rumors that Dahlan was opposed to the idea of a unity government and was actually responsible for the initiative.

In late January, when King Abdullah's envoy was in Damascus, Rashid - who has been living in Cairo for the past few years - suddenly paid an unexpected visit to the PA Foreign Ministry in Gaza. Rumors were soon spreading that the Hamas-Fatah rapprochement was not a Saudi initiative at all, and that the credit belonged to Rashid and Dahlan.

Crooke and Perry claim that this amusing anecdote is vital to understanding the failure of the American policy. It transpires that at a time when the U.S. was striving to distance Fatah from Hamas, its proteges were competing for the title of matchmaker. They write that at the end of January, the most tempestuous month in the Palestinian arena, Abbas' doubts about the American plan deepened. On February 2, he decided to go to Mecca, with or without the Americans' blessings. The die was cast after Fatah activists under Dahlan set fire to three buildings at the Islamic University in Gaza. Abbas concluded that if he continued to sit on the fence, he would be remembered as the first Palestinian leader under whose watch a civil war broke out in the territories.

Dahlan reprimanded

The images of fighting in the streets of Gaza also removed all doubts in the heart of the Saudi king. He had given the White House a full year of credit to keep its promise to renew the peace process. Instead, Al-Jazeera television was showing the Arab world how Saudi Arabia was sitting with its arms folded as the U.S. promoted a war of Sunnis vs. Sunnis. King Abdullah heard from frustrated Quartet officials that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said at one of its meetings that the "triple-track" diplomacy (Israel-U.S.-Palestinians) had undercut the work of the Quartet.

The reports about the U.S. plan, and especially about the supply of arms to Fatah, greatly upset Russian President Vladimir Putin. Dahlan, who went to Mecca together with Rashid, did not hide his disgust with the Hamas representatives or the unity agreement. He knew the agreement was ready for signing even before the guests touched the ground of the holy city. When it became clear to him that Abu Mazen was determined to sign it, Dahlan shut himself up in his room, leaving it only occasionally to chide the Hamas delegation. "You think I'm the devil, but I consider you the enemy," he taunted them. "I am not responsible for the troubles in Gaza."

King Abdullah, who followed Dahlan closely, informed him that he must attend the closing ceremony or be sent home. Dahlan, still angry, came to the ceremony but remained in the back of the room, behind the press, only reluctantly agreeing to a photo opportunity with the Hamas delegation.

This did not stop his aides from spreading unfounded rumors to the media that Dahlan was the prime mover behind the contacts that had preceded the signing of the agreement, and that it had been agreed he would be appointed deputy prime minister. Dahlan was forced to deny the story. In an interview to Palestinian television Dahlan said he rejected Abbas' requests to take the post.

To make the parties realize the religious commitment involved in the agreement, King Abdullah insisted that the two delegations participate in a "mini hajj," thus telling the entire world, and especially the U.S., that Arabs had to deal with Arab problems. He told Abbas he was aware that for him the Mecca agreement was not merely a rejection of U.S. policy but also a reshuffling of the Fatah leadership. He promised that Abbas would not stand alone, waiting for donations from the U.S. and Europe. As a sign of his commitment, he ordered an immediate transfusion of $650 million to the PA and promised that up to $1 billion more would be on the way.

To transfer the money, the Saudis will have to get the U.S. to lift the embargo on PA bank accounts. This is one of the tasks facing Prince Bandar, who left for Washington at the behest of the king following the Mecca agreement and in anticipation of the Riyadh conference. He will have to persuade Congress to change the law - in other words, to get the green light from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby organization. It is very doubtful whether Ehud Olmert, the new supporter of Initiative A, will recommend to his friends in the pro-Israel lobby to change their stripes and swallow Initiative B.

Bil'in

Last Tuesday, the state issued its response to the High Court of Justice petition from Peace Now and residents of the West Bank village of Bil'in against the decision of the Supreme Planning Committee in Judea and Samaria to legalize the construction of the neighborhood of Matityahu East beyond the Green Line.

That same day, the petitioners' attorney, Michael Sfarad, received an official announcement that the committee had rejected his appeal of a year ago to legalize the construction of a hut built by a Bil'in resident on private land belonging to his family. The building was the work of Jews and Arabs who are working against against the construction of the separation fence on village lands. (The hut itself lies beyond the fence).

The committee rejected the request on the grounds that it was unacceptable to build so far from the village and that not all the heirs had approved the construction request.

Building several kilometers from the closest community did not prevent the settlers from getting a permit to create another settlement under the guise of "a new neighborhood." Dubious powers of attorney obtained from Bil'in residents claiming that their land had not been sold to Jewish developers (the police are still investigating) did not prevent the planning committee from approving the plan to build more than 40 high-rise buildings in the new neighborhood of Upper Modi'in.

When it comes to building for Jews, the developers get an exemption from the master plan, with the reasoning that the community is exempted from the need for prior approval of a master plan. So what if Upper Modi'in is the Jewish town with the largest population in the West Bank? The contractors who began to build it hastened to appeal to the High Court to instruct the planning committee to rescind its stop-work order and allow residents to move in.

Sfarad will ask the High Court to rescind the demolition order on the hut. More to follow.