I will use my last column as an opportunity to attempt to see through the fog that will no doubt continue to hamper our vision and to share some assessments about what awaits us in the short-term.
The United States: The close partnership between Israel and the United States, so built up during the Bush administration, will lose much of its intimacy during the Obama era. Some of the appointments to key Washington positions with significant effect on the Middle East are already generating anticipation that there will be significant disagreement on central issues. The Obama team includes important voices that doubt the value of a close relationship with Israel, and will be even more doubtful of the value of that closeness given the new government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. The Americans are eager to push for a quick settlement between Israel and the Palestinians - as impossible as that is today - and to speed up the negotiations with Syria, even if President Asad does not sacrifice his strategic alliance with Iran. Above all, there is a mounting impression that the Obama administration is willing to contain a nuclear Iran rather than use military force or effective sanctions to prevent it from reaching that status. The new American administration has no will to coordinate in advance with Israel on these matters. Netanyahu will have to invest a major effort to achieve understandings with Obama and his team, if only to keep friction to a minimum.
Iran: It is no coincidence that Iran has slowed down its uranium enrichment, in an attempt to signal that it is ready for engagement with Obama. There are more and more voices in Tehran calling for a bargain with the United States that will provide Iran with substantial political and economic achievements, such as modernizing their oil industry, while it stops close to the brink of military nuclear capability. Iran wants to reach a situation which would enable it to rapidly acquire a small nuclear arsenal, but they do not necessarily believe that they should drive towards this goal at full-speed. Israel will have to live with this ambiguous reality and refrain from taking any military action that would lead to a large-scale war. The Iranian danger will continue to hover over our heads, even if it does not become an actual nuclear threat in the short-term.
Turkey: As I came to understand during a recent visit to Istanbul, the other non-Arab player in the arena will persist in preserving friendly relations with Israel. But the drift towards abandoning the secular principles of the Ataturk revolution will adversely affect these relations and the climate of partnership that has been fostered in recent years. Turkey is likely to find itself forced to compete with Iran, and not only in Iraq. There is already talk of "neo-Ottomanism" and Ankara is clearly aware that Turkey must bolster its weight in the Arab world.
Egypt: Together with Saudi Arabia, Egypt has become the spearhead of the Sunni Arab camp that is trying to block the regional ambitions of Iran and its allies. Presumably, Cairo will continue its determined foreign policy, as it has done since Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and this trend will grow even stronger after President Mubarak retires, whether he is succeeded by his son Jamal or by another heir acceptable to the armed forces. Egypt will be very careful to maintain the peace with Israel and will do everything it can to isolate Hamas and put an end to Hamas's dependence on Iran. There are no signs of any upswing in relations with Israel on the horizon.
Syria: Damascus will keep up its pressure to get the Golan back in exchange for peace that does not entail normalization of relations with Israel, and it will almost certainly maintain its refusal to break with Iran. Israel will be faced with a difficult decision: to walk the last mile to a peace treaty with Bashar Asad or to stand accused of sabotaging that treaty. In the event of the latter, the Syrians can be expected to step up their pressure, for example by supplying anti-aircraft missiles to Hizballah.
The Palestinians: Whatever the outcome of the reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, it is clear that Hamas is gradually becoming the main force in the Palestinian arena, even as it remains blockaded in Gaza. Sooner or later, Israel will have to confront the true balance of forces among its neighbors and consider the validity of its gamble on the chances of the Palestinian Authority rehabilitating itself. As we have explained in this column in the past, the only workable formula is an armistice regime, which would be something less than peace in exchange for a withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
In my estimation, these assumptions strengthen the arguments for a regional approach that would try to use the Arab peace initiative as a lever for broad dialogue, including most of the Arab states, in the framework of which ways to reach solutions to the disputes with the Palestinians and the Syrians would be examined. This approach would aim to clarify all of the region's problems around one table, with, of course, American and European involvement, and perhaps that of the Russians and the Chinese, as well.
In my opinion, Netanyahu could buy this formula and, with the assistance of Ehud Barak, he could also sell it to the Israeli public.
I hope this magazine will continue to cover these issues for many years to come. •