Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Russia and the Mecca Agreement

Putin and King Abdullah (Photo: Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia)

It remains to be seen how long the Saudi-brokered Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas will last. The new unity government has not been formed yet, and the success of the transition to it represents the first test of this document. The other, equally significant test that the agreement faces is the international response.

The motivations behind the Saudis' mediation efforts were at least three-fold. For one, they continue earlier efforts by the Saudis, most notably the peace plan of 2002, to seize the initiative to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflicts, with an eye to both the Arab street and the West. Two, the Mecca agreement was an attempt to reassert Saudi influence over the Palestinians, especially as Iran and Syria have made claims to sponsorship over Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And finally, the Saudi government might be hoping to force the Americans and the Israelis to back down on their demands that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist, thereby providing a ticket for the movement's entry onto the world stage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, currently on a trip to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states has long been pushing for Israel to drop its objections to Hamas. He immediately hailed the Mecca agreement, and used the opportunity once again to undermine the policy of the U.S. and the EU. In so doing, Putin may be ingratiating himself simultaneously to the Saudis and to the Palestinians, as well as their backers. The question is now whether the Europeans, many of whom (with the exception of the Germans) have long been critical of the recognition demands anyway, will side with Russia or Israel and the Americans.

The Russian declarations about the Mecca agreement should be seen in conjunction with Putin's recent anti-American tirade at the Munich security conference. Russia is clearly trying to play spoiler wherever it can, in order to increase its bargaining power vis-a-vis the U.S., especially in the former Soviet Union but also when it comes to economic interests at large. But to be effective at obstructing American policy aims, Russia cannot do without the Europeans. We saw the potential of a Moscow-Berlin-Paris alliance in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, however, Franco-American relations have improved significantly, and the leading candidates for the upcoming French presidential elections are unlikely to move closer to Putin. In Germany, the return of the Christian Democratic Party, led by Angela Merkel, to power, has resulted in the reconstruction of the transatlantic alliance between Washington and Berlin, undoing the damage to it done by Gerhard Schröder's SPD government. Merkel, moreover, is deeply suspicious of Putin's ambitions and his moves in Russia, the Caucasus, and in East Central Europe. All this does not bode well for Russia's aims to get Berlin and Paris to play spoiler and obstruct American policy in the Middle East with it.

Finally, unlike the Arabs and the post-colonialists in the West, Germany's elite still believes that Israel as a Jewish and democratic state has a right to exist. Whereas among European and American academics, Israel is an anachronism or a great injustice (the Naqba is equivalent to the Holocaust, declares a recent op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor), German elites take very seriously the implications of Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel; a refusal which plainly reveals the maximalist intentions of large parts of the Palestinian nationalist movement unto the present day.

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