Peace moves bring guarded optimism

There are many recent reasons to hope for peace in the Middle East.

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The flurry of peace talks these past few weeks between Israel, Syria, Hamas, Hizbollah and Lebanon, and the ceasefire that came into operation yesterday between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are all reasons for guarded optimism.

Palestinians in Gaza have been living under an Israeli blockade since April 2007, with no residents allowed to leave and only essential goods allowed in. Prices have rocketed for cooking oil, sugar and rice, while shortages of petrol, spare parts for computers, electrical goods and children's shoes have caused much hardship among the Palestinians.

Cynics are saying that the truce was only agreed because both sides are bargaining from a position of weakness. Hamas because its popularity plunged after the Israeli blockade made daily life in Gaza a living hell, and Israel because of the corruption allegations that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces. This is also why residents on both sides feel that the ceasefire is precarious and unlikely to last much longer than a month.

Yet there are other rays of hope in the Middle East, namely the negotiations taking place between Syria and Israel in Turkey. Two days of indirect talks have already been completed, and both sides have agreed to at least two more sessions. The main item on the agenda is the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.

Admittedly, the Syrian and Israeli officials have yet to meet face to face – the Turks have been relaying messages back and forth between the delegations seated in separate rooms. But the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has confirmed that the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, will be seated at the same table in Paris next month as Ehud Olmert at a forum to launch a new Mediterranean Union.

On Wednesday, Israel offered to hold direct peace talks with Lebanon, saying that it was prepared to put all issues on the negotiating table, including the exchange of prisoners and the fate of the Shebaa Farms area that Israel currently occupies. Last week, the Lebanese insisted that Israel had to return its prisoners and provide maps showing the location of mines and cluster bombs left over from its 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon before they would consider sitting down for talks. The United Nations confirms that Israel has handed it maps showing the location of land mines, but has been less helpful in pinpointing where the cluster bombs might be.

Israel has also been talking to both Hizbollah and Hamas about arranging prisoner swaps. There is growing speculation that Hizbollah will soon hand over two Israeli soldiers that it is holding, and there is similar talk of Hamas handing over an Israeli soldier. In return, Israel would release several of the hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians that it is holding in prison.

All of these developments are reason to hope that we are entering a new and less violent phase of history in the Middle East. Critics of US and Israeli peace efforts will say that both countries are making conciliatory noises merely to counter-balance and weaken Iran's growing influence in the region. War-weary residents of the region are likely to care less about the motives if the result is peace, stability and justice.