An unmentionable truce?

A Hamas-Israel cease-fire could be on its way, but you wouldn’t know it. No press conference will be held to announce it. Instead, quiet on Gaza’s borders—no rockets going out, no Israeli fire going in—will serve as the declaration that the cease-fire has begun. But this quiet will come with a tension that at any moment the cease-fire could end. And once that happens, major confrontation can be expected.

This cease-fire, which Egypt asserts is pending final Palestinian approval, is a phased deal, which begins with what Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly described as “quiet in exchange for quiet.” Hamas will stop rocket fire and terrorist activity from Gaza and ensure that all Palestinian militias do the same, and Israel, in turn, will stop air strikes and ground operations.

Without upsetting the president

It all began on January 6, 2004, when President Bashar Assad arrived in snowy Turkey for a historic visit – the first by a Syrian leader since that country won its independence in 1946. Officials in Jerusalem were apprehensive that a rapprochement with Damascus would distance Ankara from Israel. At the time, despite substantial support among the upper echelons of the Israel Defense Forces and the Foreign Ministry for the “Syria first” idea – that is, giving peace with Damascus priority over seeking an agreement with the Palestinians – no one was holding his breath about resumption of the dormant Israeli-Syrian talks. The young Assad was considered something of an oddball, who was a tool in the hands of the Syrian old guard of conservative generals and advisers. Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s Bureau under Ariel Sharon was already beginning to devise its plan for “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip.

Surprisingly, Assad suggested to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he take advantage of his good relations with Israel to renew the diplomatic process between Syria and Israel, which had been broken off following the spring 2000 meeting between his father, Hafez Assad, and U.S. President Bill Clinton. Erdogan promised to give it a try.

Sistani flirting with Shiite militant message

Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.

The edicts, or fatwas, by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rivals, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

But — unlike al-Sadr’s anti-American broadsides — the Iranian-born al-Sistani has displayed extreme caution with anything that could imperil the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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