As summer melted into autumn this year, there was cause for optimism that a recent spate of terrible, bloody years in the Middle East might be coming to an end. The occupation and sectarian conflict in Iraq was running out of momentum. The country remains dangerous and volatile, yet with a timetable for US troop withdrawal set and provincial elections on the way, Baghdad could claim a modest degree of progress.
Lebanon, too, had steered its way though a violent political crisis and stepped back from the brink of civil war. Although still deeply troubled, tensions were greatly reduced from the spring. Beirut could breathe a sigh of relief. Even Syria and Israel were holding mediated talks for the first time in years aimed at ending their long war. No promises had been made, but there was at least a basic climate of understanding. And after a long period of international isolation, Damascus was back on the world political stage and both willing and able to play a constructive role.
Most importantly, the US public had turned its back on the Bush years and decided to elect as its next president Barack Obama, a more liberal man who had opposed the Iraq invasion, and who promised to follow a path of diplomacy. Any real hope that the region might have been limping towards a kind of stability, however, has been blown apart by the past two days of carnage in Gaza. At least 280 Palestinians - mainly security forces but also many civilians - have been killed, and hundreds more wounded in Israeli air strikes, revenge for Hamas rocket attacks that have so far led to the death of one Israeli.
This latest slaughter comes as a stark reminder that the single largest problem in the region not only remains unaddressed but has been left to fester like an untreated infection; it was a disaster waiting to happen. In June Hamas declared a six-month ceasefire that had largely held. The basic idea was to stop attacks on Israel, in exchange for the lifting of the siege that has crippled Gaza and kept its population of 1.5 million under collective punishment with scarce supplies of food, fuel and medical supplies. It was intended as a time to make at least some tiny steps towards defusing a crisis. Instead, the chance was wasted with predictable consequences.
The ceasefire was due to expire on Dec 19 unless Hamas believed it had a reason to extend it. With the Gaza blockade firmly in place - an act of war against the Palestinians living there - Khalid Meshaal, the Damascus-based head of the Islamic Resistance Movement, announced it would not be renewed. The events that followed were unsurprising: militants launched rockets, belated mediation attempts by discredited middlemen failed, the Israelis reacted in typically disproportionate fashion and the world largely did nothing. The UN managed its usual weak request for a cessation of hostilities, the Americans wrongly placed all the blame on Hamas and Israel said it might send in ground troops.
More than ever, the basic ingredients of the crisis have been laid bare and the situation exposed as more dire than has been the case in a long time. The Palestinians are divided; their nominal president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, claims to speak for a people he does not fully represent. He is also the man Israel and the United States have been negotiating with - a futile waste of time. Hamas, democratically elected in 2006, has not been allowed the chance to govern and instead has been pushed into a corner by the US, Europe, Israel and Fatah. While they should have been busy with the daily trials of running the impoverished Gaza Strip, Hamas leaders are talking about the resumption of suicide bomb attacks on Israel and have called for a third intifada. As disasters go, it is a serious one. And it could easily get worse.
Elections are due in the Palestinian territories in 2009, placing an added pressure on the unresolved Fatah-Hamas conflict. Israel is also, as ever, internally divided and national elections are scheduled for Feb 10. The prospect of an election is unlikely to result in cool heads and moderate words from Tel Aviv. And with millions of Palestinians in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and an Arab general public hugely sympathetic to the Gazans' plight, the crisis can easily spread. The problem with escalation is that it leads to further escalation. Al Qa'eda-style Islamic extremists may have suffered setbacks recently, particularly in Iraq with Sunni tribes turning against them. These latest scenes from the Palestinian Territories will help bring in a flood of new recruits, placing added pressure on every country in the region that is trying to keep a lid on Islamic militancy. How long will Hizbollah be able to sit idly by if the Israelis continue their attacks? And what will Israel do if Hizbollah does get involved? What of Iran and Syria?