William Schwartz

With the race for the U.S. presidency over, the world now turns its electoral gaze upon the next region where a Barack Obama-esque dosage of change is greatly needed: the Middle East. Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel are projected to have elections in January and February 2009, respectively. Another headache of a country, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is slated to have presidential elections in June. Should these elections yield qualified, popular and appropriate candidates, American foreign policy in the region will have the capability to direct its focus elsewhere. Despite all reservations about electoral fairness in the Middle East, there is great potential for progress to be made in the region under new administrations-pending the right people are in the right places.

The first locality to undergo a possible change in political leadership is the Levant. Recent attempts, including the Annapolis peace process in November 2007, have failed to successfully produce any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike Israeli and American leadership, the Palestinian Authority is likely to maintain their loyalty to their present leader: Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas’ tenure as president of the Palestinian Authority has pleased many Palestinians but his ability to efficiently govern with credibility has diminished since Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian parliament in 2006. This division between Hamas and Fatah, focused in Gaza and the West Bank respectively, may intensify if Abbas does not hold presidential elections when his term ends in January. Hamas would then be more inclined to declare their own president, creating further dilemmas for the region if Abbas does not hold elections. Abbas should do his countrymen a favor and call for elections in January in order to counter a problematic appointment by Hamas.

Along with their conflicting Palestinian counterpart, Israel will witness a new administration change in February. The impending resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has opened the candidacy door to the likes of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. For a peace process to be implemented successfully, the most suitable candidate is Tzipi Livni. Her positive rapport with Abbas and rational and pragmatic stance on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process speaks volumes to the potential for peace in the Middle East. One issue Livni has taken flak on, however, is the right of return for Palestinian refugees-a right she believes that Palestinians do not deserve and one that Palestine cannot effectively support. Her stance, unlike that of Netanyahu, offers substantive and sensible outcomes that grant true Palestinian independence.

The third country under constant scrutiny to host upcoming elections in June is Iran. Under the political leadership of their thuggish and controversial leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has successfully pissed off the entire planet with fallacious and brash statements about Jews, Israel and the West. New, attainable leadership is on the horizon, however, with numerous candidates eligible to challenge Ahmadinejad’s attempt at a second term. One such candidate is Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist who maintains devotion and loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei-a beneficial trait when his views are centered on reform. Karroubi’s modern views on press freedoms, nuclear development and relations with the West have placed him on the short list for challengers to Ahmadinejad’s tenure. Karroubi’s emergence, however, raises potential complications for change in Iran-former president and fellow reformer, Mohammad Khatami, is also rumored to run for the presidency. These proponents of reform must unify and declare one member to challenge Ahmadinejad; otherwise, a divided opposition poses no threat to the radical conservative Iranian president.

These potential electoral developments have the ability to transform the once hostile and stubborn relations into fruitful and advantageous talks for peace and stability. Obama and his foreign policy advisers should keep a close eye on the status of the Middle East elections and all parties and actors involved-since doing so will help pick up the pieces from the failed Annapolis peace talks. Unfortunately, a U.S brokered peace process will be tabled until this financial crisis subsides. All candidates for office in Israel, Iran and the Palestinian Authority should take a page out of Obama’s proverbial book of mottos and embrace the slogan “Change we can believe in.” Obama, his foreign policy team and the rest of the world, however, should be prepared to say, “We’ll believe it when we see it.”