Saudi Arabia Swings into Action, But the Sunni-Shi?a Slant Its Leaders Offer Is Misguided

Why was Mecca chosen as the venue for the desperate last-minute effort to restore some sanity and unity to the Palestinian political arena? Saudi Arabia summoned President Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals for a decisive round of talks, as violence escalated in Gaza (and spilled over, in some places, into the West Bank); daily death tolls of more than twenty, including women and children, which would have raised howls of a “massacre” if done by the IDF, became common. The Palestinians were peering into the abyss of fitna—civil war—and the failure of all attempts so far to agree on the terms for the creation of a national unity government brought them ever closer to an all-out confrontation between armed factions. That result would be a disaster, not only in humanitarian terms. (In Israel, a sharp debate has already begun as to what point in such a massive crisis would force us to move back into Gaza to restore order and prevent further loss of life.) It would also be a painfully humiliating experience for the Arab world—and a golden opportunity for Iran to assert its far-reaching ambitions.

To overcome this, the Saudi family had to do more than “the usual”—i.e., their standard procedure of dangling huge sums of money as a reward for those who cooperate. This time, religion had to be brought in, and Islamic authority exercised so as to delegitimize the internecine fighting. Hence the choice of Mecca, the holiest of all holy places in the Muslim tradition, rather than Riyadh or Jeddah. For the same reason, religion was invoked by the Palestinians who tried to build up a hysterical concern, in recent days, over minor Israeli ground works near the Temple Mount. (Archeologists are trying to rescue what they can find before the construction of a new bridge that would lead to the Temple Mount just south of the Wailing Wall.) The issue of the Temple Mount was used as a rallying cry, and presented as one more reason for the two factions—Hamas and Fatah—to cease and desist and to give the talks a chance. Once the Saudis threatened to stop financing Hamas unless the latter’s leadership would conform, at least in part, to the requirements of the international community—recognition of Israel or, at least, of existing agreements, and an end to violence—Hamas was obliged to sit up and take notice. In this respect, at least, the “new paradigm” of Saudi policy—Iran as a greater danger than Israel and thus “we are all in the same boat”—offered a way out of an extremely dangerous situation.  

There is a problem, however, with the way that the Saudis chose to define the issues, and with the manner in which this definition has gained traction in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West. For reasons that may well be rooted in their own stormy Wahhabi past (when the precursors of the modern Saudi state, some two hundred years ago, had the endearing habit of raiding Shiite centers in today’s Iraq, killing thousands), the Saudis are openly hostile not only to the Iranian regime per se but to all Shi’a. They describe the conflict in terms of this religious and communal divide, rather than in terms of political and ideological allegiances; and therefore seek to turn Hamas around, away from its present alliance with Iran, for the simple reason that, like all Palestinian Muslims, they are Sunni, and should sever their links with a Shiite power.

This is both false and dangerous. A major Saudi contribution to the stabilization of Palestinian society is a good thing. A major Saudi intervention into the classification of an internal Arab conflict along Sunni-Shiite lines is not a good idea. Hamas, indeed, is not Shiite, nor is Palestinian Islamic Jihad—nor are other forces across the region, such as the Janjaweed militias in Sudan, directly or indirectly supported by the Iranian regime. On the other hand, the greatest threat posed to Iran’s present regime may come from moderate Shiite leaders in Iraq (and within Iran?) who abhor the notion of “obedience to the law giver” (Velayet Faqih) as developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successors in power. It is perhaps from among these voices, now timid and hesitant, that the true solution to the crisis—namely, a “different and better” Iranian leadership (to quote a phrase President George W, Bush already has used in a different context) would emerge and remove the mullahs.

Therefore, the danger is that by lumping together all Shi’a, many such moderates will be pushed aside and overlooked. Moreover, if it is along Sunni-Shiite lines that Saudi Arabia wishes to reorganize the region, tensions—not only with Israel—will soon escalate again. Stability, as Israeli foreign minister Tzippi Livni recently stated in Davos, depends not on people’s faith, but on their political practice. It would be useful for the West, and for Israel, to bear this in mind, even as we welcome the new burst of Saudi activism.

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC