Opportunistic peace-making in the Middle East
The idea of Israel swapping Lebanese prisoners for the corpses of two of its soldiers held by Hezbollah is an interesting sign of the times for many reasons.
Firstly, as Lebanese commentators have been quick to point out, it bolsters the Shia Islamic movement's standing and to some extent post-rationalises their abduction of those Israeli soldiers almost two years ago.
However the deal is more interesting in my view because it is another sign of what you might call the opportunistic peace-making or mediation going on in the Middle East at the moment.
The Germans helped to negotiate the Israel-Hezbollah swap. France played host to the latest meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president, and arranged discreet contacts with the Syrians at the margins of their Mediterranean summit.
Egypt meanwhile continues to try and build on the fragile Gaza truce brokered by its intelligence people acting as intermediaries between Hamas and Israel. Turkey, another regional player keen to get involved, has been hosting Israeli-Syrian talks over the future of the Golan Heights.
These various efforts are evidence of a rush of diplomatic oxygen made possible into the vacuum left by America.
US diplomats like to insist they are still battling to make possible President Bush's aim of a negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians before the end of the year but very few observers think that is still possible. Instead the Israelis and others have written off the Americans - largely because of the pending US presidential elections.
'Do a Clinton'
I can remember one Israeli minister telling me, before the Bush/Gore contest, "we can forget about US initiatives for the next 18 months".
He was factoring in an entire year's campaigning followed by the inauguration of a new administration, the Congressional confirmation of its key officials (notably the Secretary of State) and the time it then takes the new incumbent to get a plan up and running. In the current case, this means the key players have written off the US for 2008 and early 2009.
Now this view runs counter to the analysis being put about by some, that every American president aspires to 'do a Clinton' and seal a dramatic Middle East peace deal in the dying days of his second term. President Clinton, with his Camp David Israeli-Palestinian summit, was however more the exception than the rule.
He had spent years building relations (with Yasser Arafat in particular, who visited the White House more times than any other foreign leader), and tried to use this leverage to advantage. President Bush has, to put it politely, not given the same 'focus' to building relations with Middle East leaders. In fact, he doesn't really have a relationship with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Hamas or Hezbollah.
So, in these dying days of the Bush presidency, Turkey or France feel the time is right to have a go brokering an Israeli-Syrian peace. Egypt, has flexed its influence in Gaza and the Germans have made use of long term ties with Hezbollah.
Some of this work is little more than palliative - trying to ease the pain of impossible situations. The Gaza work - including Tony Blair's planned visit - or the Hezbollah prisoner deals fall into this category.
It is the Israeli-Syrian track that could possibly emerge into something more substantial. If Israel negotiated the return of the Golan Heights, which it seized in 1967, and Syria made peace, that could also bring profound change to the situation in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has long relied on Syria's help.
It's still too early to say whether there's a real hope of peace in that sector, and a final deal would almost certainly require a substantial American guarantee - possibly in the form of thousands of US troops on the Golan Heights.
But perhaps the diplomatic Sherpas, be they Turkish or French - will have got the two sides close enough to think seriously about a deal by the time a new US president is inaugurated in January 2009.