The collapse of the shah's regime in Iran is being widely interpreted as a warning to Saudi Arabia: It must now support the Camp David accords or risk a similar fate through the contagion of instability in the Middle East and the loss of American support. This thesis has been endorsed by the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Speaking to reporters after a briefing on Iran by State Department officials on Jan. 19, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) said Saudi Arabia held the power to "make the peace or break the peace" between Egypt and Israel, that the collapse of the shah posed an "obvious potential threat" to the Saudis, and that the United States now, therefore, had "the right to demand from them positive, affirmative support for the peace treaty."
Underlying the senator's comments are an erroneous supposition and a mistaken premise.
The supposition is that the shah fell, in part at least, for lack of American support.In fact, something closer to the opposite is the case. The shah fell for a variety of domestic reasons, of which the most important was the alienation of the Shiite Moslem traditionalists, who were alienated, in part, because of the shah's close military and political ties with the United States.
The mistaken premise, which has frequently misled both Israeli and American policy, is that there are no meaningful ties among the countries of the Arab -- to say nothing of the Islamic -- world. From this perspective, invocations of a common Islamic destiny, or of what Arab rhetoricians sometimes refer to as the "Arab nation," are dismissed as hypocrisy and hot air. The Saudis' unexpectedly strong stand against the Camp David accords at the Baghdad summit in November 1978 was interpreted accordingly as craven appeasement of the Arab rejectionists on the part of a chronically insecure regime.
There is good measure of truth in this, but it is not the whole truth, and the missing part is crucial, especially as applied to the central issue now holding up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty -- the status of the Palestinians. It is clear that the enthusiasm of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for an independent Palestinian state is less than unbounded, and it is also clear that Saudi Arabia makes payments to the Palestine Liberation Organization more for self-protection than for love of radical revolutionary movements. But Egypt's insistence on "linkage" between its own treaty with Israel and the proposed autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza is not adequately explained by Saudi pressure, if only because that pressure has been comparatively mild, confined, so far as we know, to verbal pleas, while threats to cut off aid are specifically disavowed. The Saudis, in turn, though fearful of Palestinian radicalism, are by no means wholly unsympathetic to Palestinian nationalism, toward which they exhibit a cautious but authentic sense of obligation, not wholly unlike the American sense of obligation to Israel, which survives even in times of severe political strain.
There is something else besides fear and pressure in the refusal of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to disavow Palestinian aspirations. That "something else" is a vague but authentic sense of Arab kinship, expressed in the Arabic conception of the umma , referring to the Arabs as a single nation of people in the spiritual and cultural sense. The umma is dismissed by many Westerners and Israelis as meaningless in political terms because it seldom serves as the engine of concerted action, and then only for brief periods. The real significance of the umma is as a standard of moral legitimacy, and in what it therefore inhibits or prevents. Egypt and Saudi Arabia might regard the Palestinians as an albatross around their necks, but, like the Ancient Mariner, they cannot cast it off, however much they might like to, because the Palestinians are members of the umma with a claim on the common Arab conscience.
The fallout from Iran can only be to tighten the bonds to the Palestinian albatross because of its connotations for Arab and Islamic legitimacy. The Saudi system has proven stable so far, not because it is inherently so but because the Saudi rulers, unlike the shah, have been acutely sensitive to their own vulnerability. A time of Islamic resurgence, emanating from Iran, is hardly the moment when the Saudis can be expected to lean on Egypt in support of the Camp David accords, as Church suggests. To do so, from their perspective, would undoubtedly earn the gratitude of the United States but at the cost of placing themselves in domestic jeopardy. They are far more likely to take refuge in the umma -- in Islamic orthodoxy at home, in efforts toward Arab solidarity, and in support for Palestinian nationalism.