In 2005, a Mideast Window of Moderation

Article excerpt

This past year the Middle East has seen a flurry of developments that will be realized in 2005. Yasser Arafat's passing gives rise to new Palestinian leadership. In Iraq, determination to hold elections, despite promises of violence, will be tested. Elsewhere, issues hardly less important are looming: Iran's nuclear ambitions, high oil prices, and terrorism.

Iraq: democracy tested

Violence surged in 2004, and if Iraq is going to move closer to peace this year there will have to be tangible successes. The latest polls show increasing numbers of Iraqis are pessimistic about the future. They expect improvements in security, the pace of reconstruction, and self-government. US and Iraqi officials are pinning their hopes on a democratic transition.

What to watch:

* A Jan. 30 election will select an interim parliament that will write Iraq's constitution. But there are indications now that many Sunnis will not participate, either out of fear or disillusionment with a process that's expected to give Iraq's Shiites a political majority for the first time in the country's history. If Sunni turnout is low, it could set the stage for more conflict.

* A constitution is scheduled to be written and submitted to the public for ratification by Oct. 31. Elections for a full national assembly are supposed to be held before 2006. If the constitution provides for power sharing with minorities, says Marina Ottaway at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, there's hope that it will take some wind out of the politi- cal sails of the insurgency.

* Crucial to improving security will be the creation of self- sufficient Iraqi forces that can take some of the load off the US troops. If big reductions in US troop levels are concurrent with a drop in insurgent attacks in 2005, it's likely to be seen as a sign that security in Iraq is improving.

Israeli-Palestinian crossroads

On Jan. 9, Palestinian voters will go to the polls for a rare event in the Arab world: a peaceful and democratic leadership succession. But the fact that this sign of political maturity comes without a Palestinian state could mean that peace with Israel is out of reach. Still, Yasser Arafat's passing in 2004 has created more hope. Both Israel and the US considered him an unreliable partner for peace. They have a higher opinion of moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who will probably succeed Arafat.

But that is only a tiny piece of the puzzle. While Mr. Abbas says he wants Palestinians to abandon violence, factions like Hamas remain committed to violence. And on the Israeli side, settlers and hard-line politicians continue to resist land concessions.

What to watch:

* The Jan. 9 elections. While Abbas looks the likely winner, Hamas could throw a wrench into the works, especially if its candidates do well in municipal elections. "If Abbas gets a good result in the election it will help him internally [and] help him persuade the faction to give up the militarization of the intifada, but peace cannot be done by one side. If there is no cooperation on the other side, there will be no progress," says Palestinian analyst Abu Abarra.

* Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is hoping to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in phases this year, with all settlers and soldiers gone by September. …