The Year of Acting Dangerously
By Barry Rubin
While 2007 didn't greatly change the Middle East compared to many of its predecessors, here are some of its significant trends which will continue to dominate the year to come.
1. Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. This is the most important single Middle East event of 2007 because it is a clear, probably irreversible, shift in the balance of power. Four decades of a movement dominated by nationalists has come to an end. Given Fatah’s continuing weaknesses it is conceivable that Hamas will take over the West Bank within a few years and marginalize its rival.The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His latest book is The Truth About Syria
To Islamists, this is a great victory. In fact, it is a disaster for Palestinians and Arabs. It deepens divisions and destroys any real (as opposed to the silly superficial events that take up governments’ time and media space) diplomatic option for them. A negotiated resolution of the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and with it prospects for a Palestinian state, has been set back for decades. Much Western sympathy has been lost. In years to come, struggles between Arab nationalists and Islamists, as well as between Sunnis and Shias, will dwarf the Arab-Israeli conflict.
During 2008 we will have to assess whether the Palestinian Authority still ruling the West Bank can meet the Hamas challenge. (We already know it won’t meet the diplomatic challenge but it will take all year for most Western politicians and much of the media to discover that.)
2. The military success of the U.S. surge in Iraq. U.S. forces showed that pessimistic assessments were wrong and they were able to reduce the power of anti-government insurgents and lower the death toll in Iraq. However, this is a long way from winning the war.
During 2008 the two key questions will be whether U.S. troop withdrawals start in earnest and whether there is any political progress in bringing together Sunni and Shia communities in that country. It is hard to imagine what might change to bring about such an agreement. And even if the insurgents can kill fewer people they are likely to do enough damage to intimidate Sunnis from making peace. Still, the Iraqi government and society could grow strong enough to dispense with U.S. combat troops.
3. The Western failure to tighten sanctions substantially against Iran. It was clear in 2007 that negotiations with Tehran would fail to deter Iran from its campaign to obtain nuclear weapons. Certainly, France, Britain and Germany were more willing to take—or at least to talk about taking—action but due to their own hesitations, plus resistance from Russia and China, very little happened.
The reaction to these events in Iran was mixed. On one hand, there was more worry about the pressures facing that country plus its own economic woes. On the other hand, the regime expressed more confidence that the West was chicken and that time and tide was on Iran’s side.
In 2008 we will be able to see if Tehran’s drive for nuclear weapons continues without serious hindrance. Equally, it will be possible to assess whether President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is being weakened by his factional opponents—especially in the March parliamentary elections—or tightening his hold on power and holding to his reckless course.
4. U.S. policy returns to traditional stance. Whatever innovations, for better or worse, President George Bush introduced into American regional policy have vanished in 2007. He is largely back to the traditional approach as carried out by both his father and predecessor. The administration has given up on reform or backing democracy.
In 2008, a new president will be chosen but real policy shifts will take until the following year of course.
5. Israel prospers. Despite outdated talk of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s weakness, he used 2007 to rebuild his authority. Especially interesting, Israel’s economic growth has been impressive; unemployment fallen to all-time lows. Revolutionary enthusiasm and paper victories still thrill the Arab world and Iran but material gains continue to be what is important.
6. The demoralization of Lebanon. Worried that it is being abandoned by the West, forces supporting the moderate Lebanese government began to wonder if in fact Iran, Syria, and Hizballah would be able to reestablish their control over the country. A key element is the identity of the country’s next president.
In 2008, it will be important to watch how power shifts in Beirut and whether the investigation of Syrian involvement in terrorism against Lebanese opposition figures leads to an international tribunal.
7. France changes course. President Francois Sarkozy has moved France away from the nationalistic effort to undercut the United States and appease radical regimes. Sarkozy, however, has played footsie with Syria and Libya. The question for 2008: Will he implement pledges to get tougher and will French institutions follow him in changing course?
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