Last year was one of great changes, but no great surprises, in Israel.
Right from its start, it looked like the disengagement plan had crossed the point of no return after being approved by the Knesset, and indeed, the settlements were evacuated in the summer. The defense establishment and police commands believed, and told the press, that the disengagement would pass quietly. The crisis in the Likud was at its peak, and the steam of the "big bang" hovered in the political air long before the split in the ruling party. And most importantly, Ariel Sharon managed to preserve and even strengthen his position as the state's leader. His presence at the helm emanated stability, and eased the absorption of changes.
The big surprises of 2005 actually took place in the region around Israel. Nobody expected the dramatic developments on the other side of the northern border, like the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who marched in downtown Beirut and led to the humiliating withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Nobody predicted the international isolation of Syria, the investigation of its leaders by an international forum, and the undermining of one of the foundations of the regional order - the Assad family's rule over Damascus - which Israel has grown accustomed to over a generation and a half.
The bad news of the year came from Tehran. The experts and intelligence services were surprised by the election of Ahmadinejad to the presidency, and even more so by his speeches expressing hatred of Israel and calling for its destruction, which revived the hostile rhetoric of the 1950s. The silence of the Arab world's leaders, who did not condemn the Iranian president, showed just how fragile Israel's position in the region is, even in regimes that are considered to be friendly. The combination of a call to destroy Israel with a much-touted nuclear policy made Iranian threats, which in the past had been dealt with behind closed doors and raised very little public interest, tangible to Israelis. But the most surprising thing for Israel took place in the territories. Before the death of Arafat, the Israelis feared the Palestinian Authority would collapse into a violent battle for succession. Terror opponent Mahmoud Abbas' quick rise to the succession scattered those fears, and raised new hope for negotiations. Now it seems the Palestinian fight for leadership has broken out into the open a year late, as an "aftershock." Abbas, who raised great hopes as a reformer, is finding it difficult to rule, the Fatah movement is disintegrating, and the scenario of Hamastan no longer appears hallucinatory. Reviving negotiations seems more unrealistic than before.
What can be learned from these surprises when it comes to 2006? First, predictions tend to be wrong and get complicated. Israel's political system and media are prepared for the expected scenario: renewal of terror after the Palestinian elections, disappearance of the PA and the fall of Abbas, the election of Sharon for the third straight time, and the start of preparations for a second disengagement.
Initially, there are 13 isolated settlements between Ramallah and Jenin, which will be followed by more evacuations up to the security fence. The Americans heard about these plans two years ago, and after weighing the risks and opportunities, compromised with Dov Weissglas on four settlements to be removed from the West Bank in the first stage. The bill for the rest will be delivered after the elections.
But it is also worthwhile to prepare for scenarios that appear less likely right now. To prepare for a Sharon loss in the elections, which would mean a change of the generational guard in Israeli politics and reset the political process back to zero. To prepare for a new Palestinian leader, whether from Fatah or Hamas, who will manage to unite his people and win internal legitimacy for dialogue with Israel.
Such a development would create an alternative to Sharon's unilateralism, and undermine the international support he achieved in 2005. And perhaps prepare for further reverberations from President Bush's policy of democratization in the region, which would bring down regimes around Israel. If that happens, Israel would face a strategic challenge unlike anything since the days of Ben Gurion.
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