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The New Middle East’s New Problems

BERLIN – When hostilities flared in Gaza last month, it seemed like the same old story was repeating itself. The world again witnessed a bloody and senseless surge of violence between Israel and Hamas, in which the main victims were innocent civilians maimed and killed on both sides.

This time, however, things were not what they seemed, because the Middle East has undergone a significant change in the past two years. The political epicenter of this troubled region has shifted from the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians toward the Persian Gulf and the struggle for regional mastery between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and now Egypt on the other. In the emerging struggle between the region’s Shia and Sunni powers, the old Middle East conflict has become a sideshow.

Today, the key confrontation in this power struggle is Syria’s civil war, where all of the region’s major players are represented either directly or indirectly, because that is where the battle for regional hegemony will largely be decided. This much is clear: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite/Shia power base will not be able to maintain control against the Sunni majority in the country and the region as a whole. The only question is when the regime will fall.

When it does, it will be a major defeat for Iran, not only entailing the loss of its main Arab ally, but also jeopardizing the position of its client, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. At the same time, a variant of the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power in Syria, as has been or will be the case almost everywhere in the Middle East as a result of the “Arab Awakening.”

From Israel’s viewpoint, the rise to power of Sunni political Islam throughout the region over the past two years will lead to an ambivalent outcome. While the weakening and rollback of Iran serves Israeli strategic interests, Israel will have to reckon with Sunni Islamist power everywhere in its vicinity, leading directly to a strengthening of Hamas.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots has come at the expense of secular Arab nationalism and the military dictatorships that supported it. Thus, the Brothers’ rise has de facto also decided the internal Palestinian power struggle. With the recent war in Gaza, the Palestinian national movement will align itself, under Hamas’s leadership, with this regional development. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party will be unable to offer much opposition – all the more so in view of Hamas’s break with Iran (despite ongoing arms deliveries) a year ago.

This development most likely means the end of prospects for a two-state solution, because neither Israel nor Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood has any interest in it. Hamas and the Brothers reject territorial compromise, because, for them, a Palestinian state means a Palestine that incorporates all of Israel.

This is by no means a tactical position or an expression of political naiveté. On the contrary, the territorial question has morphed into a religious one, and has thus fundamentally redefined the conflict.

Hamas is playing a long game. As long as it lacks the strength to achieve its more ambitious objectives, its intransigence in no way precludes negotiations with Israel or even peace treaties, as long as such agreements advance its long-term goals. But such agreements will produce only truces of shorter or longer duration, not a comprehensive settlement that ends the conflict.

The recent success of Abbas in the United Nations General Assembly – securing observer-state status for Palestine – will not alter the basic aspects of this trend. Palestine’s promotion is an alarming diplomatic defeat for Israel and a demonstration of its growing international isolation, but it does not imply a return to a two-state solution.

Paradoxically, the position of Hamas fits the political right in Israel, because it, too, puts little stock in a two-state solution. And neither the Israeli left (of which little remains) nor Fatah is strong enough to maintain the two-state option. For Israel, a future as a bi-national state entails a high long-term risk, unless the option of a West Bank-Jordan confederation, lost in the 1980’s, is rediscovered. This is again a possibility.

Indeed, after the Assad regime falls, Jordan could prove to be the next crisis hotspot, which might revive the debate over Jordan as the “real” Palestinian state. Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank would then have a different foundation and take on new political significance. While I do not believe that a West Bank-Jordan confederation could ever be a viable option, it might be the last nail in the coffin of a two-state solution.

Along with Syria, two issues will determine this new Middle East’s future: Egypt’s path under the Muslim Brotherhood, and the outcome of confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program and regional role.

The Egyptian question is already high on the agenda; indeed, it spilled into the streets after President Mohamed Morsi’s non-violent coup attempt. Morsi’s timing was remarkable: the day after winning international acclaim for his successful efforts to broker a truce in Gaza, he staged a frontal assault on Egypt’s nascent democracy.

The question now is whether the Brothers will prevail, both in the streets and by means of Egypt’s new constitution (which they largely wrote). If they do, will the West withdraw its support for Egyptian democracy in the name of “stability”? It would be a bad mistake.

The question of what to do about Iran’s nuclear program will also return with a vengeance in January, after US President Barack Obama’s second inauguration and Israel’s general election, and will demand an answer within a few months.

The new Middle East bodes poorly for the coming year. But one thing has not changed: it is still the Middle East, where it is nearly impossible to know what might be waiting around the corner.

Read more from our "Iran’s New Man" Focal Point.