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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 December 2006, 15:26 GMT
A year of Mid-East disappointment
Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

It is hard to believe now but 12 months ago some people thought that 2006 might be a better year in the Middle East.

Iraqi soldier shows his ink-stained finger after voting in December 2005 election
Twelve months ago... Iraqis had voted and were forming a government... [and] there was a legitimate debate to be had about the prospects for positive change

Some senior Palestinians were visibly excited by the fact that Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was forming a new centrist party and dropping big hints about pulling out of parts of the occupied West Bank.

Then there was President George Bush's talk of Middle East democracy.

It never won over many hearts and minds.

Even so, Iraqis had voted and were forming a government, America's friends in Lebanon could claim that Washington had given them a leg-up and Egypt could argue that it was not quite so easy for the police to break heads and imprison critics of President Mubarak.

Of course, there were plenty of pessimists around too - but at least there was a legitimate debate to be had about the prospects for positive change.

But in the past 12 months crisis has followed crisis.

And it is very hard to look at the political fundamentals in the Middle East now and come away anything other than depressed.

Conflicting aims

Let us start at the mother lode of conflict in the Middle East, in the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan.

Militant supporters of Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, December 2006
The Palestinians themselves are turned in increasingly on themselves, and against each other, in a society that is fragmented, violent and impoverished

The most dangerous long-term problem there is that it is harder and harder to see how a properly sovereign Palestinian state could be established alongside Israel.

The horrible irony of the current moment is that more leaders than ever before agree that a "two-state solution" is the only way ahead.

The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, does and so does Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, and a long list of others headed by George Bush, Tony Blair and the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Even Khaled Meshal, the exiled political leader of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, though he says that he will not recognise Israel, is prepared for negotiations to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and a ten year truce with Israel.

Assuming for a moment that leaders are telling the truth when they say they want a Palestinian state, a big reason why it is not happening is that they do not mean the same thing.

Cross purposes

President Abbas and a majority of Palestinians envisage a fully functioning state to be created on the land in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, give or take a few minor adjustments.

But when Ehud Olmert talks about a Palestinian state, he means one that will not include most of the settlements for Jews that Israel has set up in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in violation of international law since 1967.

It is also not clear what role, if any, that Israelis would accept for Palestinians in Jerusalem, or whether they would allow them fundamental attributes of sovereignty like control of their own borders, airspace, and territorial waters.

Israelis - supported by the world's biggest powers - also say that they will not negotiate with Hamas until it recognises their state, gives up violence and accepts agreements that have been made by previous Palestinian leaders.

Other big issues that would have to be resolved include the future of Palestine refugees and control of water resources.

The issues have been well known for a long time. But what is now clear is that there is not infinite time available to grasp them.

Palestinian tug-of-war

The Palestinians themselves are turned in increasingly on themselves, and against each other, in a society that is fragmented, violent and impoverished.

Jewish settlers form a human chain outside the West Bank outpost of Amona in February 2006
If the [Jewish] settlements stay... it is hard to see how there can ever be anything like peace

King Abdullah of Jordan has warned that a Palestinian civil war is a real danger in the coming year.

President Bush still urges Palestinians to embrace democracy. They thought that was what they were doing when they voted decisively for Hamas last January.

Israel continues to pour concrete and blast roads through the rocky hills and valleys of the parts of the occupied territories that it wants to incorporate permanently into an enlarged Jewish homeland.

Removing fewer than 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005 caused a national trauma in Israel.

It is hard to imagine any Israeli leader being either willing or able to move a big enough proportion of the more than 400,000 Jewish settlers who live in the occupied territories to satisfy the Palestinians.

Some Israelis believe that uprooting the settlements could even destroy their state. Settlements were created to make it impossible for Israel to leave the land that it had occupied.

The politicians who authorised and promoted the settlements all assumed that could only be good for the Jewish state.

But if the settlements stay against the will of the Palestinian people, along with the security perimeters and access roads and military patrols that go with them, it is hard to see how there can ever be anything like peace.

Lebanon on the verge

Further north, the outlook in Lebanon is deeply unsettled. The war with Israel last summer has been the catalyst for severe internal convulsions.

Hezbollah supports camped out in Beirut to demand government's resignation, December 2006
The memory of the last civil war [in Lebanon] is a real deterrent against a slide into a new one

Lebanon, once again, is at the forefront of a struggle that is happening in one form or another across the Middle East, about the direction to which the region should face.

In Lebanon it boils down to a dispute between those who want to look east, to embrace what they believe are its natural allies in Syria and Iran.

Against them are those who instinctively look west, towards Europe and the United States.

By the end of 2006, the opposition was trying to overthrow the government by staging big demonstrations in the centre of Beirut.

At the time of writing, apart from a few violent incidents, they had been overwhelmingly peaceful.

That may not last, though the memory of the last civil war is a real deterrent against a slide into a new one.

Last summer, Israel had its fingers badly burnt in Lebanon.

It has spent the time since then trying to analyse and digest the lessons of the inconclusive war with Hezbollah.

The debate has been bitter, and the backbiting continues. It is producing an even greater malaise about politics in a society that already had little confidence in its leaders.

Israeli fears

For Israelis, the world around them looks alarming.

Israeli soldier at the mouth of a tunnel on Gaza's border with Egypt
Suddenly [Israel's] military hegemony in the region, unquestioned for almost forty years, feels less solid

Israel remains the only Middle Eastern state with nuclear weapons.

But suddenly its military hegemony in the region, unquestioned for almost forty years, feels less solid.

The Israel Defence Forces performed badly in Lebanon, and have not been able to break the will of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The IDF could not stop crude rockets being launched into Israel from Gaza.

A sense of business unfinished hangs over from the Lebanon war, while military intelligence reports that Syria is arming itself, apparently for self-defence, with missiles to which Israel is vulnerable.

And then there is Iran, and its nuclear ambitions.

Iran denies it wants to make nuclear weapons. It says it wants to generate electricity.

The Israeli government, like the United States, believes that the Iranians want the bomb. They fear that if Iran had a nuclear weapon it would be able to threaten the existence of the Jewish state.

Military action against Iran, by the United States or Israel, still cannot be ruled out.

It is not at all clear whether any of the military options available could destroy Iran's nuclear facilities.

It is clear that any military action would carry a heavy cost, as Iran has a number of ways of hitting back.

Iraq policy in tatters

One place could be in Iraq, where in the words of the two American foreign policy grandees, James Baker and Lee Hamilton, the situation is already "grave and deteriorating".

An Iraqi relative weeps over the body of a child in Baghdad, November 2006
It is now clear that Iraq will be a source of instability in the region for years to come

Their commission, the Iraq Study Group, produced a polite but firm denunciation of almost every aspect of the Middle East policy of George Bush, and a long list of suggestions that might give the US a chance of making an exit.

Only a year before the Baker-Hamilton report, the United States published a national strategy for victory in Iraq.

It said that failure there was "not an option". Iraq, it said, would become a safe haven "from which terrorists could plan attacks against America, American interests abroad, and our allies.

"Middle East reformers would never again fully trust American assurances of support for democracy and human rights in the region - a historic opportunity lost.

"The resultant tribal and sectarian chaos would have major consequences for American security and interests in the region."

That, some American voters might argue, is the Iraq that has been created by the policies of the Bush administration.

Looking gloomy

It is now clear that Iraq will be a source of instability in the region for years to come.

Put together, there are grave crises between Israel and the Palestinians, in Lebanon, and in Iraq.

Slower burning, but still highly dangerous, is a potential collision between Iran, Israel and the United States.

The Middle East is capable of springing surprises.

Perhaps there is a secret channel of diplomacy that journalists have not found out about, that will tap into the longings for peace that many people in the Middle East share.

Let us hope so because if there is not, 2007 is looking very gloomy.

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