Mid-East outlook for 2012 is mostly grim

By Robin Shepherd, December 29, 2011
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Protesters in Tahrir Square beneath an effigy of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on February 1

Protesters in Tahrir Square beneath an effigy of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on February 1

It's hard to be anything other than deeply pessimistic in assessing the various scenarios for the Middle East in 2012, though there is one factor that might work in Israel's favour.

First the bad news, and there's lots of it. Early results from Egypt's elections suggest a commanding lead for the Muslim Brotherhood with the even more extreme Salafists - likely to take around a fifth of the vote - in second place. Variations on that theme will probably set the tone for the region as a whole.

Once again, the majority Israeli analysis focusing on the backwardness and fanaticism of mainstream Arab political culture will be proved right and the shallow political correctness of the BBC and the Foreign Office will be exposed for what it is. Plus ├ža change, though there is little joy in continually being proven right in this regard.

Meanwhile, Turkey will continue its own descent back into barbarism, employing primitive anti-Israeli rhetoric as a rallying cry in its semi-serious bid for a new kind of regional hegemony. Whether this translates into outright aggression will depend on the circumstances. If Iran decides to activate its Hamas and/or Hizbollah clients, it cannot be excluded that Turkey, in one way or another, might get involved.

And then there is Iran itself, and its nuclear ambitions. It's impossible to assess the probability of Israel attacking Iran in 2012 since, as far as one can tell, it appears that Israeli leaders are not yet convinced that the military option would work. But it is certainly on the cards and no one should be shocked if they have a go.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, Mahmoud Abbas may step down as leader. If he does, there will inevitably be a power struggle. But it won't make a shred of difference who gets the job unless there is a concerted effort to persuade the Palestinians that Israel has as much right to exist as any other state and that they must put aside their long-standing rejectionism.

An Obama defeat is one factor that might help Israel

Fat chance of course, which means that the "peace process" will be as big a farce in 2012 as it was in 2011 (though there is always the risk of a new outbreak of violence).

Nonetheless, in order to please Barack Obama and the Europeans, Israel will be forced to talk as though, in the foreseeable future, a two-state solution is possible while the Palestinians will continue to pretend that a two-state solution along 1967 lines is something they even want - the polls show that, by an overwhelming majority, the Palestinians only want a two-state solution as a stepping stone to a one-state solution involving the destruction of Israel.

It is going to be a tough year. But, as mentioned earlier, there is at least something that might work in Israel's favour: the US elections, in which Barack Obama can be beaten.

With all the challenges the Middle East will face in 2012 and beyond, strong leadership from the United States will be vital. For all our sakes, let's hope that that is precisely what emerges.

Robin Shepherd is Director, International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society

    Last updated: 12:40pm, December 29 2011