Prepare for Interesting Times

The cataclysms will continue to play out in our region. This will be the year when either Iran gets its nuclear weapons or is stopped.

Due to the overlap between Christmas and Hanukkah, we received an overdose of the dread Christmukkah this year - Santas with yarmulkes and menorahs adorning trees, and the like. This was a throwback to the Hellenism that the Maccabees originally defeated before succumbing to it themselves.

Fortunately a similar mishmash cannot be made between Rosh Hashanah and the secular New Year, as they are far apart both on the calendar and in their mode of observance. However, with the advent of 2012, amid the live-for-the-moment celebrations and a surfeit of football (even for an unreconstructed football fan like myself ), I feel the tug of Rosh Hashanah's solemn stirrings. Two thousand and twelve is a year that one enters with a trepidation befitting the Days of Awe. Leaders, nations and civilizations will face judgment.

A series of elections with global impact already dot the 2012 calendar. France will be electing a president and National Assembly. If, as now appears likely, Nicolas Sarkozy will depart the Elysee and the left will capture the assembly, even the illusion of a Franco-German motor pulling the EU will be gone. The union will become a tug-of-war between apostles of fiscal discipline and devotees of growth. Given the EU's penchant for vague compromises, we may end up with the worst of both worlds. This could prove disastrous when the European Union has lost investor and civic confidence and is struggling to keep the euro and perhaps even itself afloat.

In the United States, we can anticipate one of the most polarized elections since William Jennings Bryan fought William McKinley in 1896 - literally, a battle between two diametrically opposed outlooks. Barack Obama, who in 2008 won the White House as a post-partisan unifier, will have to rely on the opposite strategy to rally his base. Even if, thanks to the Republican nomination of a malaprop candidate, Obama is able to squeak through - it is doubtful whether the Democrats can regain the House or even retain the Senate. This will guarantee continued deadlock. Should the Republicans capture the White House after a bitter struggle, and attempt to push through their agenda, they can expect to encounter on the national level the bitter resistance we witnessed at the state level in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Russian elections were once regarded as a mere formality, leaving us only to guess what winning percentage the central election commission would announce for Vladimir Putin's electoral victory. It wouldn't be a 99-percent overreach nor the bare majority, but something in between. Now, following the demonstrations, even the Russian iceberg appears to be shifting. Putin is learning what Charles de Gaulle learned the hard way: Even if you are originally welcomed as a savior from a discredited political system, after 12 years in office, you begin to overstay your welcome.

China, which has effectively adopted the old Mexican system of one-party rule, with periodic institutionalized replacement of the elite, will effect such a handover this year. The new leadership won't have an easy time, as the global slowdown threatens the growth-at-all-cost policy. Additionally, in pursuing this policy, the new leaders must increasingly consider the downsides of land expropriation and environmental damage, as the recent Wukan protests have demonstrated. Internationally, will the new leaders return to their "peaceful rising" policy, or is China going to emulate imperial Germany, and provoke the formation of an anti-China coalition?

The global economic crisis is still with us, and could well metastasize into a global political crisis. Postwar generations that grew up with the expectation of rising economic prosperity now confront the prospect of stagnation and even decline. Just as economic prosperity created favorable conditions for democracy, the deteriorating conditions can revive the forces of despotism.

The cataclysms will continue to play out in our region. This will be the year when either Iran gets its nuclear weapons or is stopped. As nobody really expects the sanctions regime to compel Iran to forgo its military nuclear program, the only recourse will be military action and its uncalculated consequences.

Iraq without the departed American forces could alternately become an extension of the Shi'ite arc, face dismemberment into Shi'ite Sunni and Kurdish enclaves - or, in a worst-case scenario, rejoin the Eastern front against Israel.

How will Assad leave us, if his demise is imminent? Will it be via a regional Gotterdammerung or by diplomatic exile, and who will be his successors? Following what we have seen in North Africa, the odds on a democratic Syria are long. Will Lebanon, as in the period before 1968, exploit the Syrian interregnum to regain its independence?

Egypt thrashes in the unstable condition of dual power - pitting the military council against the Islamists, a situation reminiscent of 1952. We could see the army acting against the Muslim Brotherhood, a Khomeini-style revolution, in which the Islamists oust the army, or a creeping Islamic takeover following Turkish lines.

With the possible exception of the U.S. election campaign, none of the above flash points can be related to the ideological divide in Israel. Israel cannot remotely influence their development, other than by unilaterally attacking Iran. All can end up very badly. At best we can hope and, if we are religiously observant, pray that it will be a good and safe new year.

Political scientist Amiel Ungar writes a monthly column in Haaretz English Edition.