Faced with defeat in Syria and elsewhere in the region, Saudi Prince Mohammed has chosen Lebanon as Riyadh’s next battleground. JOHN HAYLETT reports on the rapidly deteriorating political realities
IMAGES of worms turning came to mind this week when Mahmoud Abbas (main picture) told the Trump administration he would freeze all communications with the US if it closed the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) offices in Washington.
The Palestinian president was squeezed for threatening to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed against civilians in Gaza and its colonial expansionism on the West Bank.
The US State Department, which renews PLO permission to operate in Washington on a half-yearly basis, refused the latest application last week, provoking fury from Abbas and other PLO officials.
PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi said that the Trump administration’s action would encourage further unilateral activity by Israel and disqualify the US from any role as a peace broker.
“If it wants to be even-handed and play any constructive role, the US government should first break its deafening silence on the illegal settlements and maintain longstanding US policy on the two-state solution and the 1967 boundaries,” she said.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki followed up by suspending all meetings, explaining: “What is the use of holding any meetings with them when they close our office?
“In practice, by closing the office they are freezing all meetings and we are making that official.”
A State Department spokeswoman revealed a change of mind on Tuesday night, saying: “We want the PLO offices to remain open and continue operation.”
This was the second time in the past fortnight that Abbas resisted efforts to strong-arm the PLO into working against its best interests.
The Palestinian president was summoned to Saudi Arabia earlier this month for Dutch uncle treatment by King Salman and his headstrong crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Abbas was reminded of Riyadh’s long-time material and political backing of the PLO and urged to jump on the Saudi-led anti-Iran bandwagon that has seen Qatar isolated by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for allegedly backing terrorism.
He was also invited to denounce Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah as a front for Iran, but the Palestinian leader showed his backbone by telling the Saudi leadership that he wasn’t interested.
The “pro-terrorist” label pinned on Qatar relates to the kingdom’s links with the Muslim Brotherhood and its ongoing normal relations with Iran.
Palestinian resistance group Hamas emanates too from the Brotherhood, but Egyptian government mediation has brought together Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, resulting in Cairo’s reopening of its border posts with Gaza under PA control.
The Saudi autocracy and its Gulf allies have been up to their neck for years in financing, training and supplying terrorist groups linked to both al-Qaida and Islamic State (Isis) in the war to overthrow the Syrian regime.
They have also been to the fore in the war to reinstate Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi who was overthrown by a coalition of forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and people’s committees led by the religious-political group Ansar Allah.
Riyadh faces global condemnation for its murderous aerial bombing campaign that has killed thousands of poor civilians and for a port blockade denying food and other essentials to areas outside its allies’ control.
Faced with defeat in Syria and elsewhere in the region, Saudi Prince Mohammed, who has arrested anyone viewed as a potential barrier to his monarchical succession, has chosen Lebanon as Riyadh’s next battleground.
He invited Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Saudi Arabia where he appeared on TV, reading from a prepared speech, claiming that his life was endangered and announcing his resignation.
His “resignation” coincided with Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan demanding the toppling of Hezbollah and asserting that its presence in the Lebanese government constituted a declaration of war against Saudi Arabia.
Clearly, Hariri, who has joint Saudi citizenship, did not go to Riyadh with the intention of resigning, so, whatever his protestations, there is little doubt that he fell in line with demands made of him and read out the speech handed to him.
In contrast, Lebanese President Michel Aoun and parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri rejected the “resignation,” with Aoun pointing out that the constitution lays down that, to be effective, a resignation must be offered in Lebanon itself.
After Hariri’s eventual release from Saudi Arabia and his visits to France, Egypt and Cyprus, he arrived home on Tuesday and took part in yesterday’s Independence Day celebration alongside Aoun and Berri.
While insisting that his resignation remains active, Hariri said that he might retract if other political forces agreed “on the need for us as Lebanese to keep our distance from regional issues.”
This dovetails with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s demand while Hariri was in Riyadh that Hezbollah must disarm, revealing that regional efforts were under way to oust it from the Lebanese government.
He called Hezbollah “a tool of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” accusing it of having “kidnapped the Lebanese system.”
In response, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil pointed out that, were it not for Hezbollah, Lebanon would not have defeated Isis.
“Hezbollah defended Lebanon against Isis terrorists when the government and army failed to do so,” he added.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi of “inciting Israel to launch a war against Lebanon. I speak here about facts not analysis. Saudi Arabia is ready to pay tens of billions of dollars to Israel for that.”
The concept of co-operation between Saudi Arabia and Israel may appear strange to people accustomed to decades of fierce anti-zionist rhetoric from Riyadh, but their joint status as key US regional allies and their backing for jihadist forces in Syria speaks volumes.
Israeli Minister of Energy and Water Resources Yuval Steinitz may have a vested interest in asserting that Israel is less isolated than thought in the region, but he openly flaunted secret ties between Israel and “many” Muslim and Arab states, including Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
“Contacts with the moderate Arab world, including with Saudi Arabia, help us deter Iran … We have ties, which are partially secret, with many Muslim and Arab states … As a rule, the opposite side is interested in keeping these ties in secret,” he asserted.
Egypt has maintained links with Israel since then leader Anwar Sadat went to Israel 40 years ago.
Commemorating that occasion this week, Egyptian ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat urged Israel to seize a “real opportunity” to normalise links with its neighbours.
“I say to the Israeli side, there is a real opportunity to open a new page with the Arab neighbours, based on co-existence and mutual understanding for a better future leading to peace,” he said, commending the Arab Peace Initiative put forward in 2002 and reaffirmed at this year’s Arab League summit.
While Saudi Arabia and its regional allies agree with Israel, backed by Washington, that Iran constitutes the main disruptive factor in the region, most observers recognise Israel’s ongoing colonisation of Palestine as such.
President Abbas’s courageous refusal to go along with the new US-Israel-Saudi axis weakens the anti-Hezbollah, anti-Iran position and serves notice on the global community that the historic injustice suffered by the Palestinian people still requires action.
n John Haylett is political editor of the Morning Star.