Is Middle East War Inevitable?

BERLIN – Fuad Siniora, Lebanon’s former prime minister, is a thoughtful man with deep experience in Middle Eastern politics. So when he speaks of “trains with no drivers that seem to be on a collision course,” as he recently did at a private meeting in Berlin, interested parties should probably prepare for unwanted developments. Of course, no one in the region is calling for war. But a pre-war mood is growing.

Four factors, none of them new but each destabilizing on its own, are compounding one another: lack of hope, dangerous governmental policies, a regional power vacuum, and the absence of active external mediation.

It may be reassuring that most Palestinians and Israelis still favor a two-state solution. It is less reassuring that most Israelis and a large majority of Palestinians have lost hope that such a solution will ever materialize. Add to this that by September, the partial settlement freeze, which Israel’s government has accepted, will expire, and that the period set by the Arab League for the so-called proximity talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, which have not seriously begun, will also be over.

Serious direct negotiations are unlikely to begin without a freeze on settlement building, which Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is unlikely to announce or implement, given resistance within his coalition government. Syria, which until the end of 2008 was engaged in its own Turkish-mediated proximity talks with Israel, does not expect a resumption of talks with Israel anytime soon. This may be one reason why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad mentions war as an option, as he recently did in Madrid.