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Middle East will muddle through 2013

Aaron Miller says a re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel will have no incentive to tackle tough issues with Palestinians.

Story highlights

  • Aaron Miller: Predictions for dramatic change in Middle East are likely to be wrong
  • He says 2013 will be a year when U.S. avoids military action against Iran's nuclear program
  • Progress on peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians seems unlikely, he says
  • Miller: The lack of dramatic developments should be considered a positive

Since leaving government almost a decade ago, my analysis of matters Middle Eastern has been, well, annoyingly negative.

And the reason? Best summed up in a line often attributed to Groucho Marx but actually uttered by Chico: "Well, who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

What I see is an angry, broken, dysfunctional region that wants to transcend itself and resolve the conflicts that hold it back, but just can't. And I'm not at all sure there's a whole lot America -- that indispensable nation -- can do about it.

Aaron David Miller

Here are my predictions for 2013 on some of the key issues. This year's theme is muddle through --neither breakthroughs nor breakdowns.

Iran:

2013 -- The so-called year of decision -- war with the mullahs who rule Iran or the grand bargain -- will produce neither. President Obama will go to extreme lengths to avoid a military strike aimed at Iran's nuclear program and will not greenlight an Israeli one. Without that go-ahead, the Israelis will continue to agonize but not act. And the mullahs will be smart enough not to brazenly give either Jerusalem or Washington an easy excuse to strike.

Bottom line -- 2013 will be a year of diplomacy, not war. To borrow a conceit from my friend New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino, 2013 will witness the Tom and Jerry game in which cat and mouse in the old cartoon continue a never-ending game of almost gotcha. Who knows? If the Americans and Iranians try hard enough they might actually bump into one another and reach a limited deal to keep Iran a few more years away from getting enough uranium to make weapons. But if you're looking for final closure on this one, go talk to Dr. Phil.

Arab-Israeli peace:

The sun, moon, and stars really aren't aligned on this one for a big breakthrough. Where should I start? The January 22 elections in Israel will likely produce another Netanyahu government that has no incentive to destroy itself politically by tackling the big issues like Jerusalem and refugees, certainly not with the Iranian nuclear issue still open. And the Islamists -- Hamas and Egypt's Mohamed Morsy (who can barely bring himself to talk about a two-state solution) aren't in the giving mood either. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak to initiate much.

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Bottom line -- The Americans will try and may succeed in getting the Israelis and Palestinians into a process to talk about borders and security. But the two-state solution is likely to remain too hard to achieve but too important to abandon. Persident Obama will probably not be earning his Nobel peace prize -- yet.

Arab spring/winter:

This is going to be a long movie. After all, it took the United States a century and half and bloody civil war to even begin to reconcile the promise of equality contained wiithin the Declaration of Independence with the legitimization of slavery contained in the Constitution, and we're still not there yet.

Still, nowhere in the Arab world do the trend lines look that hopeful. Neither in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, let alone Syria, do the Arabs have the three elements required to set their experiment with democratization and pluralism in the right direction: leaders who put the nation before their own political and religious parties' interests, institutions that are seen as inclusive and legitimate, and a mechanism to ensure that polarization doesn't spill out into the streets in violence.

Bottom line -- Buckle your seatbelts. No immediate convulsions and catastrophes. But in the new Arab world with Islamists rising, the political space for the United States is going to get a whole lot smaller and the dangers to our diplomats much greater. The key question is at what point the bell will begin to toll for the kings and emirs in Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, too.

The good news:

But all isn't totally gloomy. We're out of or getting out of the two longest wars in our history, we're reducing our dependence on Arab oil, al Qaeda has been weakened, and while we're not safe we're certainly safer here at home -- at least from foreign terrorists.

Bottom line -- With the notable exception of killing Osama bin Laden, President Obama hasn't had any spectacular successes in foreign policy, but more important, he has avoided spectacular failures. If he can continue to keep us out of trouble, particularly at a time when we need to be focused on repairing America's broken house rather than chasing around the lands of Araby trying to fix everybody else's, he'll have done pretty well. And who knows, if he's patient, maybe he'll even be able to turn one of those Middle Eastern migraines and root canals into an opportunity or two.

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