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Page last updated at 15:16 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 16:16 UK

Seeds of hope in crisis-strewn Mid East

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East Editor

Boy flies kite in Rafah, Gaza
Hamas need to show people in Gaza they can make their lives better

No-one but the most compulsive optimists ever dare to predict peace in the Middle East. It is much easier to expect the worst, as the worst is what usually happens.

But in the last month or so there has been some interesting news about talks and ceasefires. So let's try to be optimistic, for at least as long as it takes to read this.

Most important, potentially, are the talks between Syria and Israel.

They have a long way to go. Even this year, the Israeli press was speculating about the chances of a new war with Syria.

The two sides do not meet face to face. Instead Turkish diplomats shuttle between them, carrying messages.

But if, eventually, they produced a peace deal, everything in the region would have to be reassessed.

For 60 years enmity between Syria and Israel has been one of the driving forces of conflict in the Middle East. Take it away, and the place starts to look very different.

Lebanon has rejected an Israeli offer of similar, bilateral peace talks.

Some observers in Beirut say that is because Lebanon, despite its efforts to extricate itself from the influence of Damascus, still cannot negotiate with Israel until the Syrians give the go-ahead.

Sources in the Lebanese government have a different version.

They say first Israel needs to return some land it occupies - and then, perhaps through the United Nations, they could talk about a full ceasefire by returning to the armistice of 1949.

Beirut party

Beirut's bourgeoisie are not dismayed. In May, Lebanon seemed to be slipping into a new civil war. Now a Lebanese friend in Beirut tells me that people are partying like there's no tomorrow.

That, of course, is not necessarily a good thing. But it is also a sign that the tension that has gripped Lebanon for almost two years, which culminated in all-out fighting between Shias and Sunnis last month, has been reduced.

I have not mentioned the talks between Palestinians and Israelis... Even the optimists don't feel optimistic about them

The relative calm - there have been some worrying outbreaks of violence in the Bekaa Valley - is a product of the agreement that was signed in the Gulf state of Qatar to end the recent fighting.

Syria's negotiations with Israel could, ironically, have made that violence worse.

Hezbollah was not delighted to hear that its friends in Damascus were talking to its enemies south of the Lebanese border.

Paul Salem, the always perceptive Lebanese analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, suggests that Hezbollah decided that Syria was becoming less reliable as an ally, and took drastic action to bolster its position.

Hezbollah strengthened

The emergency talks in Qatar that followed produced an agreement which gave Hezbollah and its allies in the opposition in Lebanon a much strengthened position.

Now it has been given enough seats in a new cabinet to block government plans - when they manage to agree who gets which job.

Hezbollah rally in Beirut
Hezbollah has been strengthened but is not turning the screw on Lebanese rivals

Shia Hezbollah has resisted the temptation to turn the screw tight on its Sunni rivals.

They have been seriously weakened by Hezbollah's victory on the streets, but they are still in power.

Hezbollah's grievances have been satisfied, for now, and the result is at least the illusion of stability in what was looking like a very unstable place.

Lebanon's underlying problems have not been addressed, let alone solved, but optimists are hoping that Lebanon can stagger through to elections in a year from now without more serious violence.

Pessimists fear that the failure to form a cabinet so far means that Lebanon's fault lines, especially the one that runs between Shia and Sunni Muslims, will start rumbling again.

Quiet in Gaza

Further south, the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was still holding.

Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians expect it to end. But it is a sign that leaders on both sides are being realistic about what they can achieve.

Israeli stationed near Gaza play board games
Israeli soldiers pass the time playing a board game while quite lasts in Gaza

Hamas badly needs to show people in Gaza that it can make their lives better.

If the ceasefire holds, Israel will start relaxing some aspects of its siege that has imposed great privations on civilians in Gaza.

Israel has recognised that its other option, of mounting a full-scale reinvasion of Gaza, would cause more problems than it could solve.

If the ceasefire breaks down, it would still probably happen. But for now Israel has decided that the best way of stopping the rockets that are fired out of Gaza is to deal, albeit via the Egyptians, with Hamas.

Domestic concerns

The domestic political problems of Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert could be one reason for the change of tone.

The allegations of corruption that he faces might force him out of office. But he is a very intelligent political operator, and one of several survival strategies seems to be to find ways to make Israelis feel more hopeful about the future.

The Hamas ceasefire falls into that category; so does an offer of talks to Lebanon and real talks with Syria.

Next on his agenda could be two significant exchanges of prisoners.

The Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza for two years, might be swapped for dozens or even hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

And Lebanese prisoners in Israel could be exchanged for the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers - and, if they are alive, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the two soldiers who were taken by Hezbollah in 2006.

The result of all this is that civilians might have quieter lives, for a while at least.

It doesn't add up yet to the prospect of peace, let alone peace itself.

But right now, at least, some long-suffering civilians can afford to feel a little better about the present, and a little less anxious about the future.

It may not sound like much, and the feeling may go very quickly, but bearing in mind the way the Middle East has been for most of this new century, it's not bad.

I have not mentioned the talks between Palestinians and Israelis that President George W Bush inaugurated at Annapolis at the end of last year. Even the optimists don't feel optimistic about them.



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