What should we look for this year? Let's examine some trends and likely hot issues:
Despite much activity and wishful thinking about diplomatic progress, the real question is whether there will be a formal cease-fire. Even this cannot be taken for granted. Still, the intifada seems to be winding down. Less violence is likely to accompany political stalemate. Perhaps the world's anti-Israel mood is also likely to decline.
The main issue is Yasser Arafat's continued presence among the living. At most, Arafat might let Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei announce a cease-fire and then demand massive Israeli concessions without trying to stop terrorism. The succession battle is likely to heat up as Palestinian factions carve out empires for themselves, laying the basis for post-Arafat anarchy.
The key question is whether Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will implement a new redeployment-based strategy. Will any settlements be uprooted? The fence's completion and other factors are likely to reduce the number of Israeli casualties from terrorism. Other important issues include deciding what to do - if anything - about Iran's drive toward nuclear weapons and considering how much pressure to put on a weakened Syria, which continues to sponsor anti-Israel terrorism.
Objectively, Damascus is weak; subjectively, it is adventurist. Will Bashar Assad adjust to these circumstances or continue defying them? Is there going to be any higher cost for his backing terrorism against Israel and armed struggle against American forces in Iraq (as well as concealing Saddamist money, escaped war criminals, and military equipment)? One would expect Syria's strategic situation to deteriorate further. But will there be signs that army generals are tiring of Bashar's inept leadership, or will they keep supporting him to ensure the regime remains united and in power?
Elections may lead to another futile victory for reformers. The hard-line ruling faction may ease domestic restrictions; it may downplay its anti-American intransigence, which it has used to counter growing unpopularity and the country's economic problems. Presumably, this will have no effect on Tehran's sponsorship of terrorist groups or its drive for nuclear weapons.
This is probably the year's single most important issue. The U.S. plans to empower a new Iraqi government, which will hold elections. Will this transition happen, and how smooth will it be? What groups - most likely among Shi'ites - will reject the new framework and go into perhaps violent opposition? Will Saddam face trial?
Violence will probably continue unabated. If the U.S. postpones or hedges on transferring power, expect more of it. Yet putting Iraqis into authority is not a panacea since they are likely to quarrel bitterly and perhaps even fight among themselves. Meanwhile, declining Saddamist hopes give radical Sunni Islamist groups leadership of the violent opposition.
The United States
Current policies should remain consistent. The presidential election will be held in November. The election of a Democrat would bring a sharp shift, but at present Bush is expected to win. While anti-Bush passions run high, an improving economy and continuing public patience regarding Iraq should pull him through.
A single major attack could change everyone's perception of the issue. Aside from that, the key question is whether jihadist groups will continue shifting toward attacks within Arab states.
In December, 10 new members will join the European Union. The key question is whether these central and eastern European states will begin challenging French leadership on internal and external issues. The new members could find allies in Britain, Italy, and Spain for a more pro-American orientation and balanced Middle East position.
Another extremely important but more subtle question is that of the domestic Islamic factor in Europe. France is signaling that it is fed up with growing Islamist agitation within its own borders. The best-known issue is the plan - scheduled to become law in a few weeks - forbidding the wearing of headscarves in public schools.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is growing anger about Islamist violence, along with stories of religious Muslims rejecting women doctors in hospitals or Jewish judges in courtrooms, as well as the use of child-care facilities and children's magazines for spreading Islamist doctrine.
Recently, the reliable Proche-Orient Internet site published a December 23 letter to President Jacques Chirac from Muhammad Hossein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of Hizbullah, virtually threatening an anti-France jihad if Paris follows through on more restrictive legislation. Watch this issue closely.
All in all, as always, you are advised to hang on. It is going to be a bumpy ride.
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2004. All rights reserved, used by permission of the author. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and editor of MERIA Journal.