[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 9 January, 2004, 15:56 GMT
Mid-East awash with diplomatic moves

by Paul Wood
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

The Middle East is awash with diplomatic initiatives. Libya is talking to Israel. Egypt is talking to Iran. Turkey is passing messages from Israel to Syria.

Hebrew and English signpost in Bental army base, Golan Heights
Some in Israel are pressing for peace talks with Syria
In fact, almost the only people who are not talking to each other are Israel and the Palestinians.

This is big picture diplomacy. The discussions are not about this settlement or that road, but about and between states not on speaking terms for a generation.

"The war against terrorism launched by the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq has brought Israel and its Arab neighbours closer than ever before," said Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad.

Briefing foreign journalists in Jerusalem, Mr Halevy said the potential for change in the region was more now than during the early part of the 20th Century, when the great powers redrew the map of the Middle East.

Exaggerated hopes? There was certainly a mood of genuine excitement in Israel when news broke that some "initial contacts" had been made with Libya.

But Israeli officials have been playing down expectations that normal ties can be restored easily or quickly.

Old enemy

There is still less optimism about Syria.

President Bashar al-Assad wants talks. Israel has conditions. These seem to reflect Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's caution in dealing with the Jewish state's old enemy.

The diplomatic landscape is changing. The question is if that will alter the sad dynamic of the conflict here
First of all, Damascus will have to curb the activities of Hezbollah as it wages a sporadic guerrilla war against Israel on its northern border.

Other demands include closing Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices in Damascus, arranging prisoner swaps for Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon, and allowing the remains of the spy Eli Cohen to be returned for burial in Israel.

Some Israelis believe President Assad is not serious about talks. If he was, they say, he would have used diplomatic back channels rather than calling for talks in an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph.

Newspapers here also quote US officials as saying that even if President Assad wanted to sign a peace deal with Israel, they are not convinced he is strong enough to do so.

The principal demand of both Israel and the United States is that Syria close down what are held to be its chemical and biological weapons programmes. Syria has stopped short of fully acknowledging it has such programmes.

Peace talks

American officials say President Assad has not yet come to terms with the fact that US troops are on his border. Others disagree.

"Syria is an isolated country, with a tyrannical regime trying to survive in the face of an historic tidal wave that is removing such tyrannies," said the influential former Prime Minister, and current Israeli Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Events in the region have put pressure on Assad
He told Israeli radio: "Syria needs a peace arrangement with us like the air they breathe; they need it much more than we do. The advantage is totally on our side."

It is Mr Netanyahu's calculation that Syria is weak now and can be pressured into peace without Israel having to give up all of the Golan Heights.

This is why some in Israel are pressing for a positive answer to Syria's overtures.

The head of the Knesset's defence and foreign relations committee - an ally of Mr Netanyahu's - has called for President Assad to be invited to talk peace in Jerusalem, just as President Sadat of Egypt once did.


All this is a sign that the Iraq war has transformed the strategic situation in the Middle East. Wars have a way of doing that.

Some things remain the same. Glancing over the Israeli papers on Friday, there was one of those stories which just makes you despair about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The report, in Haaretz, began: "It was a bitter cold night at the Deir Balut checkpoint and Lamis Mustafa, who was in labour, begged to be allowed to get to the hospital. The soldiers delayed her for about 90 minutes. She gave birth at the checkpoint. Neither of her twin babies survived."

The diplomatic landscape is changing. The question is if that will alter the sad dynamic of the conflict here after more than three years of bloodshed.

Israel and the Palestinians



Palestinian women sit on a roof top of the home of a Palestinian family in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on 20 November 2006. Human shields
Palestinians adopt a new tactic to deter Israeli attacks, but this is a high-risk strategy





News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific