Analysis: The Arab target is Iran

What did Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas say to Barack Obama last week in the Oval Office? Did he indeed express the view that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip should be allowed to stay in place, as some reports maintain? Or did he say no such thing, as his aides quickly rushed to claim?

The White House has yet to confirm either version but, judging from the way the report was greeted in Palestinian circles, few believe the denials.

Talks over a power-sharing deal between Mr Abbas's Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and the Hamas leadership in Gaza, have been going nowhere for well over a year. Trust between them is non-existent.

Despite his public statements of support for his brothers in the beleaguered Strip, Mr Abbas has tacitly agreed to Israel and Egypt's joint policy of containing and weakening Hamas in Gaza, even if it does come at the expense of the local people. Lifting the blockade will come at a heavy political price for Fatah, as Hamas will be able to claim itself victorious.

That is why Mr Abbas has also been active in scuppering a prisoner deal which would have released Gilad Shalit, as he fears the implications of Hamas claiming credit for freeing hundreds of Palestinians from Israeli prisons.

The Egyptian regime also has little choice but to act one way and speak another. It announced last week that it was opening its own crossing into Gaza but in reality has only allowed limited numbers of people and supplies through.

While the European Union and other Western governments have been calling upon Israel to unconditionally end the blockade, the players in the region see the political reality differently. At least one senior diplomat realises this: Tony Blair, in his role as international envoy, acknowledged on Monday that while Israel would make major changes in its restrictions of shipments into Gaza, the naval blockade would remain in place.

In a seemingly unrelated development, Saudi Arabian diplomats were busy doing some denying of their own this week. The report in The Times on Saturday that the Saudi air defence systems were shut off in a secret exercise to prepare for a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear installation using Saudi airspace as a corridor, bolstered previous reports on discreet cooperation between the two countries.

Naturally, the Saudi royal family cannot allow itself to be seen aiding the Zionist enemy in its plans to attack another Islamic nation, but Iran's designs to become a regional nuclear power threaten the Saudis, the Egyptians and the rest of the moderate Arab states as much as they do Israel. None of them believe that last week's new sanctions voted upon by the UN Security Council will stop Iran in its tracks.

The lines have been redrawn. Turkey, which voted against the sanctions, has for now joined Syria in the Iranian camp. Lebanon, which abstained despite the Hizbollah component in its government, is in the balance. For the time being, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Fatah are all facing the joint enemy - Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hizbollah.

    Last updated: 4:02pm, June 17 2010