- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is earning his marks as the new peacemaker in the Middle East after extracting an agreement Thursday ending weeks of bitter clashes between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip.

Before delving into the thorny intra-Palestinian dispute, King Abdullah earlier this year intervened in the Lebanese conflict as pro- and anti-Syrian groups drove the country dangerously close to re-igniting a 15-year civil war. And in between juggling the Lebanese dilemma and dealing with the Palestinian predicament the Saudi monarch intervened with Iran over the quagmire in Iraq.

Commenting on the Saudi king’s multifaceted peacemaking efforts, a high-ranking European Union diplomat in Washington described the desert kingdom’s new extrovert policies as “Saudi Arabia emerging from behind the door.”

To be sure, until Abdullah replaced his ailing brother King Fahd on the throne, Saudi Arabia remained pretty much away from the political limelight. After Fahd’s death, Abdullah stepped up to the plate and is now the driving force behind multiple Saudi peace initiatives in the region.

The king’s latest attempt at negotiating in the Palestinian-Palestinian dispute seemed to fare better than his earlier efforts in trying to bring sense to the Lebanese-Lebanese disagreement. At least at the outset.

Convening in the holy city of Mecca with the leaders of Fatah, the largest political gathering in the Palestinian territories, and those of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, the Saudi king managed to extract a cease-fire along with a promise both sides would return to Palestine in peace and with a Cabinet of national unity.

The Mecca Accords signed under the auspices of the Saudi king call for the new coalition government to “respect” previous peace deals reached with Israel.

Under the new agreement, Hamas will hold nine Cabinet ministries, including the prime ministership. Fatah will hold six, while other factions will be allocated four. The Foreign Ministry will go to an independent, appointed by Fatah, while Hamas will chose an independent for the job of interior minister.

The fruit of Abdullah’s peace efforts in Mecca immediately resonated on the streets of Gaza, where the guns finally fell silent, only to erupt moments later in celebration as news of the agreement reached the Strip.

“We are extremely hopeful that this agreement will allow us to recapture the historical initiative and allow us to become a very constructive player in the quest for peace in the Middle East,” Afif Safieh, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Mission to the United States told United Press International.

“Hopeful” being the key word. The question now is will the Saudi-brokered cease-fire manage to hold? And for how long?

Unfortunately intra-Palestinian clashes are nothing new. Rival Palestinian movements have often fought one another in the past, at times taking up arms over the most trivial matters. While the number of Palestinians killed in fratricidal clashes may never be known, it would be safe to admit about as many died fighting rival factions than in combating Israel.

But the Palestinian issue is only one of three major crises the Saudi monarch is trying to negotiate. However, King Abdullah’s success in bringing about a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians of Fatah and Hamas is unlikely to be repeated as easily when it comes to bringing the opposing parties in the Lebanese conflict to the same table, let alone in the same room. Nor will the Saudi king find it easy to play the role of peacemaker in Iraq, where sectarian killings claiming scores of lives daily.

Abdullah, who believes there is a great vacuum of leadership in the Arab world, is trying to fill that position, according to a well-connected source close to the royal family. The prestige and influence of his position as king of the richest Arab country, and as custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, the mosques in Mecca and Medina, give King Abdullah leverage other Arab leaders will find hard to match.

The next step, reviving peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, means getting Hamas to recognize the Jewish state. For that, Abdullah will need all his negotiating skills.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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