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Reality check on Middle East talks

Motivation is there, but peace will take time.

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For all his eagerness to rejoin the international community, however, Mr. Assad will not budge without first trying to extract a few concessions. Principal among these is an assurance that the UN tribunal charged with bringing to justice the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will not implicate the Syrian regime. (If the tribunal is truly independent, of course, it is not within the US's power to provide such an assurance, but Syrians suspect US control.) Assad does not believe he can elicit such a guarantee from the current US administration, and brazenly announced that there will be no Syrian-Israeli agreement in 2008.

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What this really means is that Assad probably feels that concluding an agreement with Israel during the current US administration's tenure would be a waste. The Syrian president will bide his time until the next administration comes to power, at which point he will look for his concessions.

Assad's stance irritates the Israelis, who feel that the Syrians are using them until 2009. By way of a response, Olmert made an overture to Lebanon – about which Syria is extremely sensitive – regarding Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations. Not wanting to allow his country to again be drawn into Israeli-Syrian power plays, Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, immediately rebuffed Olmert's approach, but added that Lebanon is willing to make peace with Israel so long as Israel first withdraws from the occupied Shebaa Farms.

This leaves the Palestinians, whose relationship with Israel is complicated by the rise of Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist and will not entertain the possibility of any peace deal more permanent than a lengthy cease-fire. Yet Hamas is afraid of losing support even in its bastion of Gaza, where people may consider turning on the Islamist organization to convince Israel to end its blockade.

Last week, Hamas agreed to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Israel to allow for the entry of much-needed supplies into the impoverished strip and also to pave the way for a prisoner swap. Hamas knows that improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza and winning the release of Palestinian prisoners will boost its popularity. Yet Hamas's position entails a good deal of risk; once the prisoner swap is concluded and the kidnapped Israeli soldier returns home, Israel will have one less obstacle to invading Gaza.

Peace negotiations and cease-fires do not in themselves indicate anything more profound than the usual political jockeying. It is almost impossible to fit all the pieces together so that everybody gets what they want.

As a result of the recent negotiations we may well see (slow) progress on the Israeli-Syrian front. But signs still point to deterioration on the Israeli-Palestinian front, especially in Gaza.

Rayyan Al Sawaf is a freelance journalist in Beirut, Lebanon.