Wobbly Stools

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Late last month, globetrotting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman announced that American officials were considering a new security pact with Saudi Arabia.

The pact would function like a three-legged stool: The US would give iron-clad security guarantees to the Saudis; the Saudis would recognize Israel and give significant aid funding to their fellow Arabs, the Palestinians; and the Israelis would grant concessions to the Palestinians. The US would improve its relations with a major oil supplier and Middle East power – and protect Israel. Saudi Arabia would receive American protection and potentially civilian nuclear technology. Palestinians’ lives would improve – good news for everyone.

Human rights groups say that Palestinians live under apartheid-like conditions in the occupied territories. While Israel is a developed, high-tech nation, Palestinians struggle under draconian travel restrictions without adequate infrastructure in a shattered economy. The pact might help this and reduce the current levels of violence not seen in a decade.

But the Palestinians are suspicious of the deal.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki, for example, told Middle East Eye that the Saudis want to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and make a sovereign Palestinian state a reality. He was skeptical that Israel would agree to those conditions, however.

Others believe that the premise of the idea is flawed from the start.

“I don’t think this Israeli government is capable of conceding anything – even on paper – for Palestinians because they’re committed to the dismantling of the entire Palestinian national idea,” said Middle East Institute senior fellow Khaled Elgindy in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Palestinians, meanwhile, are already moving ahead to heal divisions within the territories to strengthen their collective opposition. Late last month, Palestinian factions met in Egypt to discuss reconciliation efforts, the Associated Press reported.

The main groups, Hamas and Fatah, have been split since 2007 and repeated reconciliation attempts have failed. Still, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the conclusion of the closed-door meeting that it was a “first and significant step” in efforts to end the long-running division.

The Palestinian Authority is pushing reconciliation also because it is worried about growing militant movements, such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, and more loosely organized groups such as the Lions’ Den in Nablus, which have sprung up because of discontent and disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, Israelis, such as the Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin, are also suspicious of the deal. The US might be floating this idea to put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative whose coalition government depends on far-right Israeli politicians seeking to expand Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, he speculated. To gain Saudi recognition, Netanyahu would have to drop the right-wingers and bring more liberal lawmakers into his government.

Baskin suggested that the Palestinians work vigorously with the Saudis to make sure that whatever deal occurs is in their interests. Israel commended diplomatic ties with other Arab states like Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates in recent years, but the Palestinians gained little from those developments.

The Saudis, for example, supposedly want more than a guarantee from Netanyahu that Israel will never annex the West Bank, the Times of Israel reported. They want to see more efforts to end the violence and cultivate peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

It’s a sign of the complexity of the Middle East that people are talking to each other behind the scenes about whether or not they should even acknowledge each other publicly, just so they can work together to make everyone’s lives better.

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