Be Ready for a Year of Decisions: Dramatic Prospects for 2006

January 2, 2006

It is pointless to wish for ourselves, reversing the old Chinese curse, a boring year in 2006. This it will not be. It may, indeed, turn out to be interesting in the worst sense of the word: The Israeli intelligence community is almost unanimous now in predicting a major resurgence of violence, once Hamas is no longer constrained by the election campaign for the Palestinian parliament, which they are currently contesting. A deluge of attacks, or at least attempts, may come our way immediately after the January 25 vote—or even earlier, if the elections are called off, as some have already vocally suggested, because of growing Fatah hysteria about an impending defeat and disarray. Other, smaller organizations such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (serving Iran's interest in escalation) have already declared that they are no longer bound—as if they ever had been!—by the "calm" (tahdi'ah ) which formally expired on January 1; and overall, in Gaza, the general impression is of growing chaos and the loss of any organized authority, with local thugs and drug runners joining the fray and challenging what is left of the tattered authority of Mahmoud Abbas's government. His reluctance to use force to assert his authority, and Israel's hesitations about "giving him guns" and heavier weapons to do the job, are reaping a sad whirlwind.

But even if the worst does not come to pass—among other reasons, because the Israeli capacity to preempt and prevent terror attacks is at an all-time high, based on highly intrusive intelligence work—it would still be an "interesting" passage of time in Palestinian affairs. As the divisiveness and weaknesses within Fatah, resulting from the tragic legacy of Yasir Arafat's methods of governance, become ever more apparent, we may see a frightening rise in the power of Hamas. Their ascendance coincides with the decision of Hamas leadership in Damascus to join the president of Iran and the "general Guide" (al-Murshid al-'Am , a concept clearly influenced by the notion of a fuehrer ) of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (Hamas's "mother movement") in denying the Holocaust, thus displaying their true colors of hate.

As two of Israel's leading journalists—Ma'ariv's editor-in-chief, Amnon Dankner, and the paper's most seasoned political reporter, Ben Kaspit—assess in today's edition, this would mean that any serious effort to implement the Road Map at the negotiating table may break down sooner rather than later. We may face a situation in which a wave of terror, and the ensuing "we-told-you-so," could throw the election, as in 1996, to Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud and the right-wing parties, who already (despite their divisions) have more prospective seats in the Knesset, if one counts their ultra-Orthodox allies than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new centrist party, Kadima ("Forward"). But even if this does not happen—after all, Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, not to mention Sharon's new political recruit (and until recently, head of the Security Service), Avi Dichter, still enjoy fierce reputations as terror fighters—the prospects for finding a Palestinian negotiating partner would remain quite slim. Hence the prospect, which Dankner and Kaspit elaborate upon, of a serious effort to come to agreement about the implementation of Stage II of the Road Map, i.e., a "Palestinian state with provisional borders"-but not with the hapless Abbas (let alone Hamas); rather the negotiating partner for what would become Israel's borders for many years to come would be the Bush administration.

Such crucial Israeli-American understandings would be forged in 2006, while the entire region heats up and could come to blows—and decisions—on a broad range of issues:

* Relative (and no more than relative) stabilization in Iraq, following the elections and the implementation of the constitutional process, creating a loose confederation of Shi'i, Sunni, and Kurdish regions, each with a real stake in the new disposition and a growing ability (and willingness?) to fight the murderous insurgents; upon this outcome hinges much of what needs to happen elsewhere, and above all, in Iran, whose people would be offered a different version of Shi'a politics than the totalitarian perversion now represented by the likes of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

* Action—diplomatic if possible, "more robust" (i.e., military) if not-may well need to be taken this year to prevent the present regime in Iran from acquiring the ability to produce the amount of fissile material necessary for a nuclear bomb. The outcome of this effort, which will face the moment of decision soon, will have far-reaching consequences for the region as a whole.

* In Syria and Lebanon, the fierce storm caused by the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri will blow ever harder, knocking over old verities about Syrian dominance, and perhaps even hastening Bashar al-Assad's departure from power. (A mediocre ophthalmology practice, in line with his better talents, may surely be arranged in exile somewhere, perhaps with the help of his in-laws in London.) The problem is that neither the Ba'ath nor the Alawite minority, nor Hizballah, with its military hold in south Lebanon, would relinquish its present powers without a fight; and as we saw these past few weeks, this could easily lead to a major conflagration. (Indeed, the miracles that prevented any loss of life on our side, despite two attacks on Israeli civilian targets, also enabled Israel to avoid massive counteraction until now.)

* All of this is taking place against the broader pattern of change in the region as a whole—from the steady, if slow, pace of social liberalization in the Gulf (women drivers in Saudi Arabia—surely the End of Days is nigh!) to the uncertain consequences of political pluralism in Egypt. Israel's margin of security will be simultaneously narrowed by certain political developments and broadened by others (as well as by the steady growth of our economy and the grudging respect accorded by the world for Sharon's ability to take, and implement, tough decisions).

Amid these challenges and uncertainties, the one steady element that must remain a constant, and often a determinant, feature of our affairs is the American-Israeli special relationship. It is certain to be nurtured by Sharon, if he stays in power; he has consistently looked upon the present U.S. administration as his closest and most vital ally, even if tactical considerations require the two sides to play a game of distancing themselves from one another at times. But this is never enough; without the unique and active role of American Jewry and Israel's other friends and allies in the U.S., it will be difficult to navigate successfully the historical torrents that may sweep us along in 2006.

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