It is now two months until the inauguration in Washington, and it would be nice if the world went into a postelection recess for the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's holidays. With Israel facing elections on January 22, there might once have been some hope for a brief respite. Alas, events in the Middle East are heating up and are likely to keep getting hotter this winter and into the spring.
Until this week the hottest crisis was in Syria, where the death total is now around 40,000—with about 10 times that number as refugees and many hundreds of thousands more as internally displaced persons. American policy has, at least until now, been to combine diplomatic activity with military and intelligence passivity. American, EU, and Arab pressure got the Syrian opposition to offer a new, unified face to the world last week, but that unity will be useless unless it elicits more military help. Bashar al-Assad cannot defeat the rebels, but with more help they can defeat him. Optimists think the recent American diplomatic efforts are the precursor to a new, postelection activism that sees us getting more arms to the opposition so they can seize and keep more territory in northern Syria and then begin to move south toward Damascus.
And the departure of CIA director David Petraeus may even help here, for he was reported to be extremely cautious about ramping up the CIA's role in the Syria crisis. Chances are, then, that Syria will see more fighting in the next few months. A no-fly zone remains unlikely, especially if the rebels appear to be making gains without one. If the rebels win, the administration will next year claim that it handled things perfectly well and that critics who argued for a greater American role sooner were just mindless hawks or—worse yet—neoconservatives! But the fall of Assad will only inaugurate the next stage in the Syria crisis, as jihadist, Muslim Brotherhood, and more moderate and secular elements of the opposition struggle for power. Here the administration's passivity—allowing the crisis to drag on for two years—may prove to have been catastrophic. The jihadist presence in Syria was tiny and unimportant when the war began, but grew monthly as Sunnis watched the regime slaughter their brethren while Western powers did little or nothing. Will the jihadists just go home when Assad falls, or make more trouble in the neighborhood? Will the Brotherhood prove to be the best organized group while moderates are divided and feckless, as happened in Egypt? The time to have helped those moderate forces—with guns, to be sure they were a powerful part of the victorious coalition, and with humanitarian aid, to be sure they could buy influence and show the benefits of their Western ties—is about over. The Obama administration muffed this, and Syria and its neighbors will all pay the price over the next few years.
Even with the fighting in Syria, the hottest crisis spot right now is obviously Gaza. In the last two weeks the number of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza into Israel grew into the hundreds, something no Israeli government could tolerate for long. This kind of terrorism from Gaza is what produced Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, when Israeli air and ground forces attacked Hamas and other terrorist groups there. It remains unclear why Hamas decided to produce a crisis now, but it is clearly a Hamas decision and not merely the action of uncoordinated jihadist groups. Hamas could have done more to repress the other groups and prevent them from firing into Israel; instead it joined the fray and officially claimed credit for some of the attacks.
The Israelis do not seek another ground war in Gaza, but something had to be done. Their air attacks into Gaza in early November were meant to signal Hamas to knock it off, but failed; in the three-day period from Saturday to Monday, November 10-12, more than a hundred rockets were shot into Israel. Israel responded on November 14 with airstrikes that among other things killed the Hamas military leader in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari. Those strikes had wall-to-wall political support in Israel, and in this preelection period no candidate wishes to appear weak in the face of terror.
The Israeli tactic is to make the Hamas leadership pay directly for these terror attacks on Israel rather than to make the population of Gaza pay. Israeli targeting was extremely careful, and by Friday afternoon there had been several hundred strikes by the Israeli Air Force but fewer than two dozen Palestinian deaths—and very few accidental hits at civilians that Hamas could turn to propaganda advantage. The hope is that Hamas will be persuaded that the price is too high, and the rockets will stop—and meanwhile Israel will not have to listen to European and Arab complaints about the plight of the poor people of Gaza under Israeli attack. The initial Hamas reaction of more rocket attacks into Israel to avenge the death of Jabari was predictable, and does not tell us whether Hamas really wishes to escalate. If it does, an Israeli ground assault is inevitable—and reserves were called up in Israel in midweek.
When Israel began Shabbat, the supposed day of rest, as a day of war on Friday, the question remained whether Hamas was going to force a ground invasion by continuing and even escalating its attacks. It is plausible, because Hamas is in a difficult position, and a week of what it will call "martyrdom" may look attractive. The Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt has not been the boon they had anticipated, and the border with Egypt has been only partially opened. Egyptian soldiers continue to take apart the smuggling tunnels that over the years have provided so many goods to Gaza—and so much income to Hamas. And Egypt's new government has not renounced the peace treaty with Israel, is negotiating with the IMF for a loan, and appears to seek steady relations with Washington—all anathema to the Hamas warriors in Gaza. In fact, Cairo even urged Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel. Meanwhile the effort of Palestinian Authority president and Fatah party chairman Mahmoud Abbas in the United Nations appears headed for a late November vote that will give "Palestine" the status of a "non-member state" U.N. observer. With that status in hand Abbas says he wants to restart negotiations with Israel after its elections (abandoning the Palestinian Authority's previous position, in essence imposed by the Obama administration, that all construction in settlements and in Jerusalem had to be frozen first).
All this left Hamas looking marginalized, and what fun is there in governing a poor and tiny principality? Better, perhaps, to remind the world of Hamas's true vocation, which is terror; to remind everyone that Hamas is still there and can still produce a regional crisis; and to remind would-be peacemakers with Abbas that he controls only half the Palestinian population. But whatever Hamas's debatable motivations, it has produced this crisis and must now seek to avoid a visible defeat. Logically that should mean stopping now, but the leaders of Hamas are not conventional politicians. Their actions in the last few weeks remind us that Hamas leaders too have a "policy" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that it is not to prove they are effective negotiators in U.N. salons or efficient administrators of the statelet they now rule. They are not irrational, but they are terrorists, enthralled by blood, death, and martyrdom.
What we will learn early next year is whether there is a U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian issues beyond stopping the current violence. Since the quick failure of the September 2010 peace extravaganza at the White House, attended by Netanyahu, Abbas, Mubarak, and the king of Jordan, the Obama administration has not had one. The days when George Mitchell and Hillary Clinton inveighed against settlements are long gone. Today the administration is opposing Abbas's U.N. efforts, and when he succeeds the administration will try to persuade him not to complicate matters further by bringing Israeli generals before the International Criminal Court or joining additional U.N. agencies—actions that would embitter Israeli-Palestinian relations even further, potentially prevent renewed negotiations, and lead Congress to end American support for those agencies just as we have withdrawn our support for UNESCO (where we supplied 22 percent of the budget). We see what Obama wants to prevent, but we don't know what he wants to promote. Does he see the "peace process" as a second-term chance for greatness, or a magnet for endless and useless diplomatic efforts?
Just managing the current developments in the region would seem to be enough to keep our diplomats busy when the president's second term begins, without the reach for an Israeli-Palestinian peace and a great ceremony on the White House lawn. Not only will there be Syria, the violence coming from Gaza, a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt whose commitment to democracy is at best unproved, and an increasing sense of instability in Jordan, but looming over all this will be Iran. Negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1—the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—will resume soon. But what is the president's game? Obama loyalists debate whether he really means "all options are on the table" and might some day bomb Iran or support an Israeli strike.
The first steps will be diplomatic, and the question is whether the administration will avoid the hardest choice—war—not by ending the Iranian program through sanctions and negotiations, but by accepting a bad deal and calling it victory. Defining what is a bad deal will of course be the substance of the debate, and it can be very technical at points. But the gap between what the Security Council resolutions demand and what Iran will be willing to accept seems very wide, and a deal that can be described as "even weaker than what the U.N. wanted!" may not seem too attractive to most Americans. There's no particular reason for Republicans—who have always taken a harder line on Iran than has Obama, and who forced many of the current sanctions on him—to accept such a deal, and they can be expected to oppose it. So may the Israelis, and so at least in private may the French. And so may the Arab Gulf states, who not only oppose a deal that allows Iran to have any nuclear program at all but also fear that an Iran that feels triumphant and has gotten all sanctions removed may step up its subversion in the region.
If there are serious negotiations with Iran, the president must decide fast whether they will be bilateral rather than with the Security Council members and Germany—which would make both the Israelis and Arabs very nervous—and whether he will offer Iran a "grand bargain" that goes beyond nukes to end 30 years of hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic, which would make the Israelis and Arabs even more nervous. He may well find that Khamenei, whose loathing for the United States knows no limits, refuses such talks and such a deal—or indeed any deal. If so, the president will next spring face an Israel that thinks its military option must be exercised soon, as he will face a decision about American military options.
All of this is in the cards, but wild cards may appear. What if we find that al Qaeda groups in northern Mali were involved in the Benghazi attack and need to strike at them before that region becomes a new safe haven for al Qaeda bases? What if the palpable unease in Jordan turns into serious demonstrations (and there were sizable demonstrations this past week) against the king? What if the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia, both in questionable health, die or become incapacitated in the coming months? What if Iran decides to turn Bahrain into a greater crisis by spurring riots there, or sends more Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah troops into Syria to bolster the Assad regime?
Also among the wild cards are the names of our own top officials. Who will deal with crises on the American side? A Secretary of State Susan Rice, who saw Benghazi as a demonstration and not terrorism, or John Kerry, who long argued that Assad was a reformer? Who will be running the Pentagon on the day the president must decide about bombing Iran, or supporting an Israeli bombing and helping the Israelis deal with its consequences? Who will be CIA director as we contemplate everything from drone strikes in Mali, to arming the Syrian rebels, to sabotage in Iran?
The next three to six months in the Middle East will make Obama administration officials look back to 2012 with nostalgia as a quiet time when they were able to focus on the campaign. The coming year will be much tougher—starting now.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict comes out in December.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.