Sadly, like 2006

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Last year was bad for Israel and for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new year, 2007, is not likely to be much better. Indeed, in many ways it is liable to offer a continuation of the negative developments of 2006.

Last year began with the disappearance from the scene of PM Ariel Sharon and the election of Hamas to head the Palestinian Authority government. Midway through the year, open warfare broke out between Israel and Hamas (and Hizballah in Lebanon). One of its casualties was the plan of PM Ehud Olmert to continue unilateral Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. Another was Olmert’s status as a leader enjoying broad support and considered capable of making sound national security decisions.

Toward the end of the year, a fragile Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire took hold in Gaza; tentative discussions of confidence-building measures took place between PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). On the other hand, Hamas and Fateh factions clashed in Gaza and the West Bank in what threatened to deteriorate into civil war.

Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush, the only third party considered capable of exercising the leadership necessary to galvanize an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, last year confronted the consequences of his misconceived and badly-managed policies in Iraq, particularly those that strengthened Iran, and of his Middle East regional democratic reform program that ended up enfranchising militant Islamists in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Yet he seemed to learn little from his failures. Meanwhile, his leadership profile was weakened further by mid-term elections swept by the Democrats. Hence Bush is even less likely to devote his energies to Israelis and Palestinians in his last two years in office than he did during his first six years.

There were only two positive notes last year–silver linings of a very dark cloud. One was the growing readiness evinced by Israel’s moderate Sunni Arab neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to engage more seriously in at least stabilizing the Israeli-Palestinian situation. They did so largely out of a perceived need to make common cause with Israel against Iran–they must persuade their publics that progress toward peace with the Palestinians renders Israel an acceptable partner in this broader strategic endeavor. This underlines the increasing preoccupation of Israel and the region with the Iranian threat rather than, or at least alongside, the Palestinian deadlock.

A second positive development was the readiness of the international community, led by Europe, to play a role on the ground in Lebanon and Gaza. Here, too, the concern is Iran and militant Islam at least as much as the Palestinian issue.

In view of the largely negative legacy of 2006, what can we expect from 2007?

The US, Israel, Abu Mazen and the moderate Arabs will likely make an effort to create a modicum of positive momentum. It may even be called a peace process, but it will almost certainly not be one. Rather, it will consist, in the best case, of well-publicized summit meetings and CBMs like prisoner release, removal of West Bank checkpoints and transfer of funds–the latter two already underway. In a best case scenario, Israel and its neighbors will sit down with American and European backing to begin discussing the Arab League/Saudi peace plan of March 2002.

Meanwhile, inside Palestine Fateh-Hamas tensions will increase, possibly producing civil war, possibly elections, almost certainly more violence. In parallel, inside Israel Olmert’s government will continue to display a low capability of dealing with heavy national security issues. The outcome or even expectation of the Winograd Commission report on the mismanagement of the war in Lebanon, coupled with Labor Party primaries in May, could conceivably bring about a government reshuffle or even new elections.

Peace will not break out in 2007. If we’re really lucky, things may get a little better.

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