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It's the Middle East, Stupid

But for all these transformations, the Middle East remains the same explosive context of conflict it was in the 1960s. The region is still bitterly divided -- not between Arab nationalism and conservatism but between religious moderation and the surge of Islamist extremism spurred, in part, by the Six-Day War. Backed by Syria and Iran, a phalanx of terrorist groups threatens Israeli and Arab societies alike. Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and is engaged again in peace talks with the Palestinians, but it is still an object of abomination for the overwhelming majority of Middle Easterners. And violence in Gaza -- now run by a democratically elected Hamas government -- can still spark turbulent demonstrations throughout the region's streets.

If anything, the Middle East is even more flammable today than in the 1960s because of the countless thousands of short- and long-range missiles in its armies' arsenals. These weapons vastly amplify the potential destruction of any military confrontation while slashing the amount of decision-making time that might be needed to avert all-out war. And modern weapons, including unconventional ones, make everything scarier. A conflict between Israel and Iran might not last six days but six hours, unleashing shock waves even more seismic than those of 1967.

Contemporary Middle Eastern leaders cannot afford to ignore these lessons. Neither can decision-makers -- and would-be ones -- in the United States. Though the waning Bush administration is focused on trying to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, shore up Iraq and flex its muscles at Iran, it should not downplay the danger that a seemingly limited border skirmish could rapidly escalate into a regional catastrophe.

Nor should Bush's heir. The next commander in chief may have to proceed directly from the inauguration to the Situation Room to try to defuse a Middle Eastern crisis of monumental dimensions. That moment could be a single Qassam away.

Michael B. Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is the author of "Six Days of War" and "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present."

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