The flame of hope is burning in the Middle East - but it could easily be smothered

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No one can accuse Tony Blair of being short on courage. Even with the elaborate security arrangements that necessarily attended it, his flying trip to Baghdad and his pre-Christmas visit to the troops in Basra took guts. This Iraq venture, coming as it did on the eve of his well-trailed visit to Israel, was also a spectacular way of showing that, in the Prime Minister's mind at least, there is a link between the war in Iraq and bringing that elusive peace to the Middle East.

From the earliest preparations for the war in Iraq through the mayhem that scars so much of Iraq today, Mr Blair has never lost his focus on the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinians - and that is to his credit. That President Bush is speaking more positively about becoming involved in the Middle East in his second term may be in no small measure because Mr Blair kept reminding him that, whatever happened in Iraq, there could be no stability in the region as a whole, without peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr Blair is visiting Israel, and the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority at Ramallah, at a time when the auspices for progress suddenly look brighter than for many years. The death of Yasser Arafat passed off without the violence and confusion that had been widely feared. If the Palestinian elections next month give the favourite, Mahmoud Abbas, the mandate he seeks and if he proves capable of wielding the authority vested in him - neither a foregone conclusion - Israel will have a partner for negotiations who is credible.

This is by no means the only hopeful sign. The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has gambled on a withdrawal from Gaza and a total handover of the region to the Palestinians by next summer - and so far he is winning. He has managed to obtain the approval of the Knesset for this controversial plan and is in the process of forming a coalition with a Labour Party keen to see the withdrawal happen. Israeli opinion is as amenable to a peace deal as it has ever been. The mood among Israel's neighbours, including Egypt and Syria, appears unusually constructive.

Finally, Mr Bush's re-election - however unpopular in much of the world - has been wholeheartedly welcomed in Israel. Rightly or wrongly, Mr Bush is seen as a more reliable friend than John Kerry might have been - or the Europeans. Mr Bush is trusted not to betray Israel's interests or agree anything that would compromise its security.

Mr Sharon and his advisers have also insisted that the unilateral nature of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza is not intended to pre-empt or derail the so-called road map, underwritten by the Quartet of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia. In short, there is much here for Mr Blair to talk about during his visit to Israel, and it is an auspicious time for him to be there.

The fear must be, however, that Mr Blair will be tempted to overplay his hand for his own short-term electoral purposes. The now vexed question of a Middle East conference, to be held in London in February, is a case in point. Long in Mr Blair's sights, it appeared to have been envisaged as a mini-Camp David that would culminate in a Downing Street ceremony with Mr Blair holding hands, Clinton-like, with the Israeli and Palestinians leaders. Mr Bush scotched that during Mr Blair's Washington trip last month. Mr Sharon regards such a conference as premature, but says that Israel will look benevolently upon a meeting to discuss international assistance to Palestinian rule in Gaza.

This would not be the big prize Mr Blair appears to have sought in return for backing the US in Iraq, but it may be what he has to settle for. Not for the first time, Mr Blair risks giving the impression that he prefers the grand appearance to the more modest reality. He needs to remember that the most successful Middle East mediation was conducted in utter secrecy by Norway. The flame of hope may burn more brightly in the Middle East than for several years, but it is still delicate. It must not be smothered by an excess of self-aggrandising enthusiasm.

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