There is a story that went unnoticed in the furor over the NIE last week, a story that also contains elements of deception and perfidy. This one reveals where two of America’s key Arab allies stand when it comes to the peace process.
The Palestinian Authority had made a special arrangement with Israel to allow 2,000 Palestinians to leave Gaza in order to make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. These Gazans were to leave Israel by way of the Kerem Shalom crossing in Gaza and the Allenby Bridge crossing in the West Bank, their PA-organized travel meant to show the residents of Gaza that Mahmoud Abbas can make things happen for them — in contrast to Hamas. But Cairo and Riyadh had made their own special arrangement with Hamas.
The Egyptians allowed 700 Palestinians on Monday and 1,300 on Tuesday to cross the border into Sinai, where buses were waiting to take them to Saudi Arabia.
“The Egyptians stabbed us in the back,” a senior PA official said. It turned out that the move had been coordinated with the Hamas government and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi embassy in Cairo swiftly processed the Gaza pilgrims’ visa applications sent by the Hamas government, while the Saudi embassy in Amman held up all the visa applications sent by the PA, even those of West Bank pilgrims. The PA, which had invested huge efforts in organizing the pilgrims’ trip to Saudi Arabia in a bid to improve President Mahmoud Abbas’ status in the Gaza Strip, was enraged by Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s conduct.
Not a very nice thing to do to the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Not a very nice thing to do to Condi Rice and the peace process, either. So why did these two countries pull such a petty and antagonistic stunt?
The Egyptians have been worried since the summer that Israel and America will succeed in isolating Gaza, and that Israel would thereby be able to accomplish the total severance of contact between the two territories. Since only Israel and Egypt share a border with Gaza, if Israel manages to get itself off the hook for providing fuel, electricity, water, and the like to Gaza, then these will become Egyptian responsibilities — and Gaza will have been turned into largely an Egyptian, instead of Israeli, problem.
Obviously, the Egyptians want none of this, which is why they’ve become so remarkably unable to stop the proliferation of smuggling tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border, a subterranean network that allows Hamas terrorists to train in Iran, import explosives and rockets, and thereby ensure that Gaza will indeed remain Israel’s problem. So the Egyptians showed up in Annapolis, smiled wryly, winked at the Saudi foreign minister, and returned home to continue doing their part to keep Hamas in the picture and to make Abbas look foolish (which is never very hard).
What are the Saudis up to? It seems plain to me that the Saudis have never been on board with the idea of isolating Hamas. Recall that the Saudis hosted the leaders of Hamas and Fatah in Mecca early this year to encourage the formation of a national unity government. This obviously was a colossal failure, as a few months later Hamas showed the Saudis what it thought of reconciliation by instigating its six-day gangster takeover of Gaza. But the Saudis remain undeterred, and this weekend hosted Hamas’s Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshal, once again for national-unity talks. The Saudis continue to encourage the political currency of Hamas because they wish to prevent the group from completely casting its lot in with Iran, and also because they see the Hamas-Fatah fight as a needless distraction from the more important, and beneficial, Palestinian fight against Israel. And now they have been joined by Egypt.
None of this is to suggest that the Abbas government, even with Saudi and Egyptian support, would be able to accomplish much more than the mau-mauing of a few more billions from western governments and the UN. But the hajj scandal does go a long way to illustrate the extent to which America’s Arab allies, which Annapolis was largely convened to cajole into the peace process, care little for America’s strategy, or for the peace process itself. Secretary Rice, of course, has been silent on the matter, lest it be revealed as another embarrassing demonstration of the flawed thinking behind Annapolis, and indeed of the improbability of her larger revitalization of the peace process.