Strong Arab leadership might help set the agenda forward
The Middle East has never needed effective political leadership more than at present. Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq are three very troubled states which are in danger of seeing very little political progress in the coming year, and the effects of the continuing violence ripple out to all other nations in the region.
All three share similar problems of poor state structures, lack of leadership and endemic violence, but each has very different local conditions which have created their bad situations.
Palestine remains the key issue. The disastrous effects of 60 years of fighting the Israelis, including 40 years of occupation, means that the whole Palestinian political structure has been naturally focused on gaining political freedom, and has not been successful in managing what civil responsibilities they were able to achieve.
This civil weakness of the Palestinian governments has been gleefully compounded by years of military and political actions by successive Israeli governments. The result is a broken state in which the use of political violence which has become deeply ingrained.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been greatly weakened by the seizing of Gaza by his political rivals in Hamas, with whom there seems to be no hope of reconciliation.
This means that Abbas is unable to deliver any possible peace deal through the Annapolis process sponsored by the Americans and George W. Bush's government. Any route forward has to include Hamas, with whom the Americans refuse to have any contact.
The solution is for any new peace process to include politicians from all sides including Hamas. The two state solution is the eventual answer, but to get there needs vision and tough commitment from all sides, and both are lacking.
In Lebanon, the willingness of several political parties to go beyond the normal factional politics of that struggling democracy has imperiled the whole state for the sake of short term advantage.
Hezbollah retains an extraordinary amount of control over large areas of the south and is not willing to give it up to become a fully integrated part of the Lebanese state.
The government was crippled by the walkout of its Shiite ministers over a year ago, and now the presidency is unable to be renewed.
A possible compromise candidate has been found, but renewed disputes over the authority and make up of the government have stopped a solution being found to the long-running political crisis, which is founded on the political parties being unable to reach the necessary compromises that taking part in government requires.
The possible tragedy of complete failure in Iraq is the Middle East's worst nightmare. The American led invasion in 2002 tragically and stupidly ignored the need to rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq, and allowed a political and security vacuum to emerge in which every group with a gun was able to resort to gangster style protectionism and crime.
In this savage atmosphere, politically-inspired violence has became normal, and four years of militia style politics has created an atmosphere which Iraqi politicians find almost impossible to overturn without substantial support.
The last year has seen a drop in the amount of political violence, as counted by the Americans, but it is not the answer.
The lull is only an opportunity in which Iraqi politicians have to find a long term answer for their country, and they need to be backed in their decisions by the Americans. Only an Iraqi solution will work, even if it does not suit the politicians in Washington.
A new constitutional dialogue is required, pulling in leaders of all parties including those outside the process at present, in order to draw up a federal structure in which all parties are willing to take their place.
However, such political talks are not happening and there is no move to start them. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's government sees any such new start as a threat to itself, and George Bush's administration needs a quiet exit from power at the end of 2008 and will not want to start something that it cannot control.
The common link between these three very difference states is that their political impasses have become so deep that they have almost become accepted. To seek for political change requires such terrific political commitment that no-one can quite manage to dream that it can be done.
But the Middle East cannot afford to let these countries continue to drift through shocking and debilitating violence, and it cannot wait for an American president to be interested enough to support such a difficult peace process in any of the countries.
American commitment comes and goes, and depends on how much an American leader is willing to spend time thinking about the Middle East.
The Arab leaders have the opportunity to define agendas for their region, in the full knowledge that any new American initiatives will have to take Arab proposals into account.
The Abdullah Plan for Palestine is an example of an Arab plan which has become part of the accepted way forward, and it is an example of how the new heavy weights of the Gulf are able to influence the region for the better, in the absence of any new political ideas from the traditional leaders like Egypt.
* Published in the UAE's GULF NEWS on January 3, 2008. Francis Matthew is the paper's Editor at Large.