How the Saudis Stole a March on the US

Mark Perry & Alastair Crooke

Asia Times, March 5, 2007

Palestinian Authority advisers Saeb Erakat and Yasser Abed Rabbo arrived in Washington at the beginning of February confused and uncertain. Their mandate from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, was to talk to State Department officials about US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s upcoming visit to Ramallah, where she was planning to hold a three-way meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian president about restarting the peace process.

But beyond that, neither Erakat nor Abed Rabbo had a clue about why Abu Mazen had insisted they travel to Washington. They weren’t alone. In the immediate wake of their visit, State Department officials wondered aloud why the two had even bothered to come: “The real question for both men was the same,” an official familiar with the Erakat-Abed Rabbo meetings remarked, “and that was – what the hell are you doing here?”

The same confusion was apparent at the White House, where National Security Council (NSC) official Elliott Abrams – the architect of US policy in the Middle East – was growing increasingly irritated with Rice’s attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. Abrams, supported by officials in the Office of the Vice President, had consistently argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a morass better left in the hands of the Israelis. That viewpoint was clear from the first days of the administration of President George W Bush, when Vice President Dick Cheney knocked down any attempt to re-engage with Israelis and Palestinians.

A Republican Party stalwart describes Cheney’s views in blunt terms: “People would come to Bush and say we have to get focused on the peace process, and Cheney would sit there and say, ‘Mr President, don’t do it. These people have been fighting for 50 years. To hell with them. And look at what happened to [former president Bill] Clinton when he tried. It just got worse.’ And Bush would nod his head and that would be the end of the discussion.”

The NSC’s concerns over Rice had deepened with reports that she had gone directly to Bush on a number of foreign-policy issues, circumventing both Abrams and Cheney. While it is traditional for a US secretary of state to confer directly with a president, Abrams, Rice and State Department official David Welch (the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs) had formed a seemingly unbreakable triumvirate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the wake of the Hamas election victory last year, the three had authored a program supporting Fatah cadres in the West Bank and Gaza opposed to the Hamas government and successfully recruited Arab governments to join in a program of shipping lethal and non-lethal aide to anti-Hamas Fatah militias (see No-goodniks and the Palestinian shootout, Asia Times Online, January 7). Now it appeared to Abrams that that program was being sidetracked; not only was Rice talking about restarting the peace process with Abu Mazen, but the US Congress had put US$86 million of aid to Fatah on hold over fears that some of the materiel could be used against Israel.

Even more disturbing, the NSC had been monitoring reports that Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal and Abu Mazen were on the verge of forming a unity government – a government that Bush had explicitly warned Abu Mazen against during his meeting with the Palestinian president in October on the sidelines of a United Nations Security Council meeting.

Abrams had cause to be concerned. In the two weeks prior to Erakat’s and Abed Rabbo’s journey to Washington, Abu Mazen had been talking to Meshaal about accepting an invitation that the two meet in Mecca to sort through their differences. The invitation was the result of an initiative authored by Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi King Abdullah’s national security adviser and the former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

King Abdullah agreed with Bandar – it was time for Saudi Arabia to intervene in the Palestinian conflict. As a result, in mid-January, Abdullah sent an unnamed emissary to Damascus in Syria to talk with Meshaal and to inform the Syrian government of the Saudi king’s efforts, which were aimed at ending the incipient Palestinian civil war and the US-authored economic blockade of the Palestinian government.

Meshaal and Abu Mazen also talked about the initiative directly by telephone. When contacts between the two inevitably became public, Abu Mazen was worried that his aides would undermine the initiative. Erakat and Abed Rabbo were two such officials. Abu Mazen knew he would have to get them out of the way before the Mecca meeting. What better way to do that than to send them to Washington?

Erakat and Abed Rabbo were the least of Abu Mazen’s worries. The Palestinian president was worried that Mohammad Dahlan, the 46-year-old Gaza Fatah activist who had been the recipient of most of Washington’s largesse, would also sidetrack the issue, or worse: if a unity government appeared inevitable, Abu Mazen worried, Dahlan would work to make himself a part of it. The key piece of evidence for this was the fact that Dahlan’s mentor – former Yasser Arafat adviser Mohammad Rashid – was telling the Israeli and Palestinian press that Dahlan was not only not opposed to the formation of a unity government, but that it was his idea.

Rashid is a wily political operator of considerable skills, but after Arafat’s death while president of the Palestinian National Authority in 2004, he was sidelined. The access he had had to the Palestinian political environment was suddenly ended. He had no special relationship with Abu Mazen and he got the feeling that he was no longer welcome inside the Palestinian political establishment. Dahlan was feeling the same pressures, particularly from Abu Mazen partisans who viewed him as a political upstart. “Who does this guy think he is?” one of Arafat’s confidants asked just weeks after the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader’s death, when Dahlan was making a bid to head the Palestinian security services. “He’s nothing but a lieutenant-colonel.”

Coming in from the cold was difficult for Rashid and Dahlan, but both men did their best to insinuate themselves into Abu Mazen’s inner circle. Dahlan was the first to make his presence felt, even before Arafat’s death: he insisted on accompanying Abu Mazen to the Bush-Abu Mazen meeting in Aqaba in June 2003, where he impressed US officials as young, competent, pro-American and pro-peace.

Dahlan also made it clear that he was not only tough enough to rebuild the shattered Palestinian security services, but that he welcomed US advice on how to do so. He quietly distanced himself from Arafat, a fact noted by Arafat partisans inside of the Fatah central committee. US officials came away from Aqaba impressed by his dedication; he seemed a perfect next-generation Palestinian leader.

Rashid, meanwhile, had sent a personal emissary to the US and Europe to talk with people who were close to Abu Mazen and to officials of Fatah’s central committee. “The word from this guy was, ‘Listen, Rashid wants to get back on the inside, is there anyway you can help us?'” Rashid’s enemies inside the central committee responded by sending their own emissaries to counter Rashid’s moves. “Their message was pretty simple: ‘Stay away from this guy.'”

Despite these warnings, by February 2006 – just one month after the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections – the Dahlan-Rashid axis had succeeded in making both men an essential part of America’s program to undermine Hamas. Dahlan was the darling of the Western intelligence services, and was being tutored in English in London, where he could be found at Claridge’s Hotel. In the evenings, he would sometimes be spotted at some of London’s most fashionable nightclubs. When not in London, Dahlan appeared at the side of Abu Mazen during the Palestinian president’s most important public events.

He soon became a fit subject for international photographers and correspondents, who commented on the rise of the new generation of Fatah activists that Dahlan seemed to represent. Rashid, in the meantime, had decided that the best way back into the Palestinian political environment was simply to offer his services to both Abu Mazen and the Hamas leadership. In late January, at the same time that King Abdullah’s emissary was having quiet discussions with Meshaal in Damascus, Rashid showed up in the offices of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry in Gaza. “What’s he doing here?” an official there asked another ministry official the day of Rashid’s visit. “I have no idea,” was the reply.

So it was that the first reports coming from the Middle East about a prospective agreement between Hamas and Fatah named Rashid and Dahlan as instrumental in forging the initiative. It was not the Saudis, Dahlan partisans said, who had suggested that the two parties resolve their differences – it was Rashid. It was Rashid who instigated the rapprochement, it was Rashid who shaped the final agreement, and it was Rashid, under Dahlan’s guiding hand, who brought the two sides together.

“Nonsense. Total nonsense. Whatever you’ve read in the papers is nonsense,” an official close to the Fatah-Hamas negotiations said. “We keep hearing that Fatah officials close to the Americans decided they would seek an opening to Hamas. That’s simply not true. This was King Abdullah’s idea and was the result of direct talks between Riyadh and Damascus. King Abdullah sent a senior Saudi official to talk with Meshaal in Damascus and to get his agreement to come to Mecca. This is how this happened.”

While this mini-controversy may seem marginally important in hindsight, it is central to understanding the full breadth of the Hamas-Fatah discussions – to understanding why the Mecca agreement symbolizes a setback for US policies in the region, to how Fatah activists intend to rebuild their party, and to how senior Fatah officials have wrested control of their movement from the hands of a younger and more pro-American generation of Fatah activists.

While Meshaal agreed to King Abdullah’s invitation to attend a meeting in Mecca with Abu Mazen and senior Fatah officials, Hamas’ senior leadership was initially skeptical that Abdullah could successfully negotiate a unity government. They were even more surprised by Abu Mazen’s sudden change of heart. Through all of January Abu Mazen had hesitated to meet with Hamas officials and had not given his approval to meeting them, even when the Saudis began to apply pressure to him in mid-January. But by the end of January, Abu Mazen began to have deep doubts that the US-authored anti-Hamas program would succeed.

January had been a particularly bloody month, with the slaying of dozens of Palestinians. More important, Hamas officials had intercepted truckloads of weapons intended for Fatah forces in Gaza. The shipment included newly polished M14 automatic rifles. The pro-American Fatah faction in Gaza was embarrassed that their trucks had been intercepted, but defended themselves by saying that the trucks carried medical equipment and tents. Then Fatah spokesmen upped the ante, announcing that they had arrested five Iranian military trainers helping Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This was proof, they said, that Hamas was being armed and trained by Iranian Shi’ite radicals.

Fatah did not produce the Iranian trainers, while Hamas leaders said they would pack “tents and pills” in the trucks and return them to Fatah – and keep the guns. “The situation was slipping out of control,” a Fatah official admitted. “There were real fears that the violence would become general, that many more people would die.”

The increased violence was monitored closely by Abu Mazen, who worked endless hours trying to dampen it. He continued to hew a moderate, fence-sitting line, blaming both factions for fueling the disagreement. But nothing seemed to work. In all of this, he was influenced by Fatah security officials who claimed that Hamas would soon “break” – that their government would collapse. When it did, they said, he would be free to reopen talks with Israel – with US backing. With the Hamas government still in office, they argued, those talks would fail.

Abu Mazen reluctantly agreed with this assessment until the evening of February 1, when Fatah activists answering to Dahlan broke into the campus of Gaza’s Islamic University, setting fire to three buildings. The invasion of the Islamic University marked a major escalation in the fighting, and a shift in Abu Mazen’s thinking. On the morning of February 2, as three separate buildings on the university campus lay in ashes, Hamas leaders told Abu Mazen that they now had little choice: the invasion of the Islamic University was being viewed by their rank-and-file as an invasion of a sacred precinct. Fatah, they said, had stepped over the line.

In response, Hamas security officials sanctioned the occupation of Fatah-controlled police facilities in northern Gaza, and three were quickly overrun. Abu Mazen was stunned by the Islamic University incident and Hamas’ reaction. “It really shook him,” a Fatah official said. The next morning, with Erakat and Abed Rabbo still safely in Washington, Abu Mazen confirmed that he would attend the Mecca summit. “His basic thinking was that if he had to do something,” an American official who monitored the negotiations stated, “he did not want to be remembered as the first Palestinian president to preside over a Palestinian civil war.”

While Abu Mazen had continually wavered in the face of increasing violence, Saudi King Abdullah had never doubted that he would come to Mecca. It was only a matter of making it clear to him that he would have the political protection he needed to face Rice when she showed up in Ramallah – a meeting that was scheduled for February 19, after Abdullah had forged a Hamas-Fatah unity government.

“For the Saudi royal family, the violence in Gaza [the overrunning of the Islamic University] was the worst kind of news,” a Palestinian official speculated. “The royal family could see the conflict worsening just by switching on the television. They wanted to put an end to it. They were also worried about their own street. How could they answer claims that they were supporting a program designed to have Sunnis kill Sunnis?”

It was in this context that King Abdullah decided that he would break with the United States. He had given the White House one year to deliver on its promise to transform the Palestinian political landscape, and the US had failed. “Abdullah decided that he wanted an Arab solution to an Arab problem,” a former American diplomat confirmed. “With instability in the West Bank and Gaza, in Lebanon, and with deepening divisions between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Arab world, he felt he had to do something to stabilize the situation in at least one area.”

In many ways, Abdullah’s decision was the result of a “perfect storm” of events: the disintegration of the security situation in Gaza, the indifferent support of Egypt and Jordan for America’s anti-Hamas plan, and his perception that the position of the Quartet (the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia) on Hamas was beginning to unravel. Abdullah’s decision was reinforced by Rice’s stillborn diplomacy.

Rice had pledged that the US would work for a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Olmert government, but King Abdullah knew that an increasingly large number of Arab leaders were beginning to question her leadership. He had also heard reports from Quartet officials who were angered by Rice’s announcement at a recent meeting that her “trilateral diplomacy” (among Israel, the US and the Palestinians) now superseded the work of the Quartet. These senior diplomats viewed her opening of “the trilateral track” as an insult to European and Russian officials who had believed her promise that the Quartet would lead diplomatic efforts to recast the Palestinian political environment.

No one was more upset than Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on January 29, Lavrov told Putin that the US program of supplying certain Fatah factions with weapons was undercutting European and Russian efforts to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Efforts to resume the negotiation process with Israel have stumbled over the threat of a civil war in the Palestinian territories,” Lavrov told Putin.

The Palestinian territories, he said, were on the verge of civil war, a conflict fueled by the United States. Putin was angered by Lavrov’s report. While the Russian president had met with Hamas officials in February 2006 (a full year before King Abdullah called Meshaal to Mecca), in the wake of that meeting he heeded US warnings that he was undercutting Quartet efforts to isolate Hamas. No further meetings were held. Now Putin felt betrayed, and directed his foreign minister to make his views public. In the wake of his meeting at the Kremlin with Putin on January 29, Lavrov told the press that “certain unidentified outsiders” were “instigating internal Palestinian strife” and “hindering a relaunch of the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians”.

While it is not known whether King Abdullah listened to Lavrov’s statement, he certainly would have agreed with the Russian foreign minister’s conclusions, which Lavrov made public in a television interview after his meeting with Putin: “The goal of the Quartet is to help overcome the standoff between the Palestinians, namely between Fatah and Hamas, and stop efforts which unfortunately are being carried out from outside to provoke conflict between these groups,” Lavrov said. “If their efforts were not being hindered from abroad, these two main Palestinian groups could quickly come to agreement.”

The first meeting of Abu Mazen, Meshaal and King Abdullah took place in Mecca on the morning of February 6. In truth, there was little to do – the outlines of a prospective agreement between the two political parties had been the subject of negotiations over the previous months, and little effort was needed to bring Abu Mazen and Meshaal into agreement. The foundational principles of the meeting were already in place: the two factions would end their fighting and work toward building a unified Palestinian government. Ismail Haniyah would remain prime minister and the balance of the cabinet positions would be filled by Hamas officials. The more sensitive issues of filling the government’s security and finance portfolios would be finessed by the appointment of independents or through a veto from either party.

This would make it easier for wavering Europeans to increase funding to the new government. Abu Mazen’s delegation arrived divided, with Mohammad Dahlan adamantly opposed to the meeting and even more opposed to the agreement. Accompanying Dahlan was the ever-present Mohammad Rashid, who was counseling his client to express his disagreements politely but firmly, but then remain silent. Dahlan did not heed his advice. According to Fatah officials, Dahlan was “aggressive” in his meetings with the Hamas leadership and, when it became clear that an agreement would be signed, sulked in his room. He returned only occasionally to confront the Hamas delegation. “You think I am the devil, but I view you as the enemy,” he told Hamas leaders at one point. “I am not responsible for the troubles in Gaza.”

King Abdullah watched this carefully and told Dahlan that his presence at the final ceremony was essential. He would be there, Abdullah said, or he would be sent home. Dahlan, still sulking, appeared for the signing of the agreement, but he remained in the back of the room, behind the press. He thereafter only reluctantly agreed to appear in photos with Hamas delegates. Hamas leaders, for their part, agreed to shake his hand, but would not embrace him.

In the wake of the signing ceremony and as a way to help seal the agreement, King Abdullah insisted that both delegations participate in a “mini-hajj”. Visiting Mecca’s holy sites, Abdullah calculated, would symbolize their own commitment to Palestinian unity. “This was a brilliant move on the part of Abdullah,” an American official confirmed. “Abdullah made it clear to them that they were not only giving him their word to abide by the agreement, they were pledged to it before God.”

King Abdullah’s mediation was personal in other, even more subtle, ways. He made it clear that it was his belief that Arab problems should be solved by Arabs, without the Americans or the West. He also made it clear that he knew that in coming to Mecca, Abu Mazen was taking a political gamble that would mean not only a rejection of the US program, but a reshuffling of the Fatah leadership. But, Abdullah told him, he would not stand alone. As a sign of his commitment, Abdullah also pledged an immediate transfusion of funding, to pay Palestinian salaries. The initial pledge was $500 million, but more would come when necessary. A final figure was arrived at – an immediate transfusion of some $650 million would be made to the Palestinian Authority (PA) through the Finance Ministry, but more would be on the way. Up to $1 billion. The PA no longer needed US or European money.

The positive response to “the Mecca declaration” was nearly unanimous among international diplomats, excepting those from the US and Israel. Even Quartet members seemed relieved, announcing that they viewed the Palestinian accord in a “positive but cautious manner”. As expected, the Russians welcomed King Abdullah’s intervention, and Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov said he “unconditionally” supported it.

The Americans seemed confused: “We have not actually seen the agreement, and it’s important that we be given some time to look at the agreement, especially at the details of it,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said, “It’s a four-paragraph statement that leaves open any number of questions about the government’s composition, structure, policy plans and otherwise.”

Even the Israelis seemed taken aback. “We need to see a government be formed and see what the policies and practices of that government are,” said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Olmert, but she then added: “Israel expects the new Palestinian cabinet to respect the three principles laid down by the international community.”

Elliott Abrams was enraged and more surprised by King Abdullah’s initiative than any other US official. The Saudis had calculated his opposition and taken steps to dampen it. In the immediate aftermath of the Mecca meeting, Abdullah dispatched Bandar bin Sultan for consultations with Abrams, Cheney and Bush. Bandar reassured the Americans that Abdullah’s initiative would have long-term positive consequences, weaning Hamas away from Iran and allowing the Fatah old guard to rebuild their organization. It was the only way they could hope to compete.

Any chance now for Fatah removing Hamas from office would be counterproductive, Bandar said. Abrams did not agree, but he maintained his silence. Privately, he remained convinced that Rice’s opening with Abu Mazen to restart the peace process had undermined his own program of support for Fatah radicals. Just one week after King Abdullah’s Washington visit, his anger with Rice boiled over in public. After envoy Christopher Hill announced that the US had signed on to a six-party agreement ending North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Abrams fired off dozens of e-mails to government officials questioning the decision. Abrams’ e-mail offensive was an unusual miscalculation. “That’s Abrams for you, his emotions got the best of him,” a retired diplomat speculated. “He was still simmering from Mecca.”

What Abrams was really enraged about, US officials confirm, was the fact that Rice had gone directly to the president for approval of the North Korea deal without using the NSC process. The e-mails were an embarrassment, as they made clear that Abrams sided with John Bolton on the Korea issue. Bolton, recently resigned as US ambassador to the UN, had only just announced his own disagreement with Bush, surprising and embarrassing the administration.

Now Abrams was following suit, and for what seemed to be purely ideological reasons. “This was a mistake for Elliott,” one of his colleagues outside of the government said. “He was siding with Bolton and indirectly criticizing the president. It was really a stupid move. It made him look like he was an ideologue, the kind of guy who can’t take ‘we surrender’ for an answer.”

Abrams’ complaints about the agreement were made public by the Washington Post, which said his messages were being shared with the paper to show the depth of disagreement inside the administration over the Korea initiative. That’s one explanation. The other is that Abrams’ enemies leaked the e-mails to discredit him. If that was their intent, they succeeded. In the wake of his public tantrum, NSC director Stephen Hadley upbraided Abrams in a meeting in Hadley’s office, telling him that he was not the secretary of state. Stay way from the Korea issue, he said.

While Abrams simmered quietly over the Mecca initiative, American diplomats were scrambling to help explain it – and keep alive Washington’s support for their Fatah clients. When Congress put the $86 million destined for Fatah factions on hold, the US dispatched Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to plead for Arab monies that could keep the Abrams program alive.

Even as the Mecca declaration was being broadcast throughout the Arab world, Dayton was adamantly promoting America’s Palestinian allies as a way of balancing the scales against an increasingly powerful Hamas. “I don’t doubt that Saudi Arabia and the Emirates will listen to him and probably shovel some money into Gaza on the Fatah side, just to satisfy the Americans,” a former Middle East diplomat said. “But no one now believes the program will actually work.”

Dayton’s plea to Arab governments was that the money was desperately needed, particularly in light of the congressional hold on the monies disbursement. The speculation in Washington is that the White House will make sure Fatah gets the money one way or another – even if that means taking responsibility for its disbursement out of the hands of the State Department and putting it back into the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency. “They’ll just take this white program and make it black,” a government consultant with ties to the agency said. “They’ll make the program covert, like it once was” in February 2006.

Another official also noted that “it will be interesting to see how the Saudis will get their hundreds of millions into the PA. Are they going to ask the Americans to end the freeze on Hamas bank accounts, on PA bank accounts? To do that you have to change the law, and you can bet the Congress won’t do that.”

The impact of the Mecca declaration is also obviously being felt in Gaza and the West Bank. Within hours of the meeting’s conclusion, the pro-Dahlan public relations machine was in full swing. The Israeli press, in particular, was quick to pick up on and reprint these insider views – that the agreement might fall apart at any moment, that most of the details of its implementation had yet to be decided and that, most important of all, Dahlan was not only instrumental in his advocacy of a national-unity government, all the parties agreed that he would be named Ismail Haniyah’s deputy prime minister. None of the reports were true.

The agreement was not only undergirded by a number of unpublished implementation protocols, but the early disagreements between Haniyah and Abu Mazen were promoted as a way of getting the Palestinian president through his meetings with Rice. Nor was there ever any agreement that Dahlan’s position as deputy prime minister was a part of the accord. Dahlan finally conceded defeat; he told an interviewer on Palestine TV that he had turned down the post of deputy prime minister, in spite of Abu Mazen’s insistence that he take it. Asked to explain the Gaza confrontations, Dahlan waved his hand: “We were never enemies of Hamas; we were defending ourselves,” he said.

The biggest loser in Mecca, however, was not Fatah, but Elliott Abrams. Abrams’ program of arming Fatah – first to spark a “hard coup” and then, when it was clear that that would not work, a “soft coup” – has failed. Abrams convinced the Quartet, the Europeans, the Israelis, the Saudis and even some Palestinians that his program to undermine Hamas would succeed. Give us one year, he had said. Now, one year later, two important supporters of his program – the Saudis and the Abu Mazen government – have changed their views. The Europeans are not far behind.

This article first appeared at Asia Times.

One Comment

  1. Mohammad Nazemi wrote:

    King Abdullah’s statement that “Arab problems must solved by Arabs” is what has been the missing component. It’s about time.

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