…And, as the old saying goes, we may well not see them again in our lifetimes. The region is in what might politely be called an interesting situation just now, for at least four reasons above and beyond the war in Iraq. They'll likely determine the history of the region for decades to come.
First, Israel is clouded (very nearly seized) by political scandal, and they have the most unpopular Prime Minister in their history. The effective passing of Ariel Sharon has left the state largely rudderless. In the absence of the state’s traditional strong man, the extant leadership is increasingly desperate. Prime Minister Olmert has proposed negotiations in places and with people Sharon never would have. That he isn’t likely sincere is rather beside the point: he’s talking like a desperate man.
Line this up with the death of Yassir Arafat a few years ago--when deaths at the top are the best news out of a region, things aren’t good. This is the second thing—a power vacuum in the Occupied Territories. A government of national unity involving both Fattah and Hamas is all well and good, but it still does not fill the rather cavernous shoes left by Arafat. He may have been ineffectual, corrupt, obstinate and politically obtuse—he was all of these and more—but no one else can hold sway over the Palestinian people as he did. Never in their post-1948 history (at least to my knowledge) has there been a lack of legitimate political authority in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps.
Meantime, to the east, the major Arab states are beginning, slowly to line up behind a crisis. True, Syria is formally allied with Iran, and true the region is still shot through with any number of divisions, but something looks to be emerging: The Arab states (most Arabs are Sunni, and most but not all Arab states have a Sunni majority) are beginning to fear a common perceived enemy: Iran.
And this is the fourth thing—the rise of Iran. Iran is already the region’s most populous country except for Turkey, and looks well positioned to become the most powerful. There’s also an important cultural distinction at work here. Iranians speak a different language than Arabs and, and most have a different religion. A long history of mistrust , and an increasingly bellicose government in Tehran, may serve to do what nothing since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has—unite the Arab people, at least in large part, behind a common cause. Iranians on the street probably don't think of their country as having ambitions for regional power, and increasingly they don’t support their government, but that may prove cold comfort to the powerful in Riyadh and Amman.
Some of these things might turn out OK. The instability in Israel-Palestine may well leave an opening for peace in the Occupied Territories, especially if the Palestinians’ Arab patrons are too busy with other things to object. Loose Arab unity, or at least amity, hardly sounds like a bad thing either. But throw in trouble with Iran and you’ve got a real problem.
None of this would have a place to happen had one of the larger Arab states, with a mixed Sunni-Shiah population, not recently dissolved into civil war. This leaves Iraq in the unenviable position of hosting a wider regional war, rather as the Democratic Republic of Congo recently did in the Great Lakes region of Africa. As Sunni Arab governments line up behind Iraqi Sunnis, and Iran supports Iraq’s Shiah population, it’s hard to imagine how things could improve from here. Things only get worse if the Shiite minorities (and the occasional majority) in other Arab countries are inflamed in the process.
It all looks worryingly like Europe did a century ago, when an old, complicated network of allegiances finally hit a snag and drove the continent into the First World War. The irony is that the current geopolitical arrangement in the Middle East was largely created by European statesmen at the end of WWI. The result may be that the Sykes-Picot borders that currently carve up the Arabian Peninsula and the surrounding area may finally break down over the coming years or decades. If it happens, it won’t be a pretty sight.