The other day, I came across an old white baseball cap at the bottom of a drawer. Emblazoned on the front - in Hebrew, Arabic and English letters - were the words: "Blessed are the peacemakers". It had been given to me as a freebie, to ward off the desert sun at a ceremony to sign the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in October 1994. In these days of war, killing, terrorism and religious extremism in the Middle East, the very idea of peacemaking seems a cruel joke, but on that windswept day in the desert, everything seemed possible.
The treaty with Jordan came a year after the momentous handshake in Washington between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. There was talk then of the "Children of Abraham" - the Jewish descendants of Isaac and the Muslim heirs of Ishmael - sharing a common religious, historical patrimony. Abraham was the archetypal peacemaker, resolving his conflict with Lot over land and bargaining with God to save Sodom from destruction.
But as the Bible tells us, Abraham's offspring were not destined to live together peaceably, and for the past three years the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael have killed each other without pity. Much blood-spilling is taking place elsewhere in the world.
Yet peacemaking need not be hopeless. According to researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, the number of armed conflicts around the world has been declining steadily. At the peak in 1991, there were 54 - from wars to "minor" conflicts. In 2002, the number was down to 31. The researchers say the figure for 2003 may be "slightly higher" as a result of the war in Iraq, but the trend is still downwards.
There is no shortage of work for peacemakers. Their task is even more important in this era of "global insecurity", when a conflict in a faraway place can have a direct impact at home, in the flow of refugees, drugs and terrorists. To succeed, the heirs of Abraham the Peacemaker need to be armed with faith, patience, resilience, inventiveness, limitless optimism - and luck.
Christmas in Bethlehem will once again be a mournful affair, observed in the shadow of Israel's guns, with faded pictures of Palestinian martyrs rather than tinsel to decorate the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. Many have tried their hand at solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians - from American presidents to local churchmen - and all have failed. Tony Blair, who ardently pressed George Bush to issue the "road map" for peace earlier this year, seems to have given up. And yet there are those whose hope for peace in the Holy Land is irrepressible. Terje R0d-Larsen, the Norwegian academic who played midwife to the 1993 Oslo accords and who has nursed the peace process ever since, will not accept that the historic deal is dead.
Where others retreat into despair, R0d-Larsen, now the UN's special envoy to the Palestinians, sees hidden achievements. Where other mediators crash into a wall of hatred and intransigence, he insists: "There is now a narrow window of opportunity. If the parties seize it, there is possibility to move forward." R0d-Larsen believes that it is possible to achieve incremental progress. The appointment of a new and wilier Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, and the political pressure being exerted on Ariel Sharon by Israeli senior army officers, businessmen and public opinion, may re-establish some kind of peace process. Perhaps there could be an unofficial freeze on building Israel's separation wall in the West Bank, perhaps a renewed Palestinian ceasefire and perhaps, ultimately, a partial Israeli retreat from territory in exchange for a Palestinian state with temporary borders.
"In a paradoxical way, even in the depths of bloodshed, the peace process has in a strange way moved forward," explained R0d-Larsen during a visit to London. "For the first time in history, the Palestinian chairman and a Likud prime minister have agreed that the aim of negotiations is the establishment of a Palestinian state. For the first time, a Likud prime minister has used the word 'occupation'."
Peacemaking in the Middle East is a crowded field. R0d-Larsen is a member of the diplomatic "quartet" - alongside envoys from the United States, the European Union and Russia. Meanwhile, the Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, has been working on an aspect that other mediators cannot reach - trying to convince the suicide bombers to halt their attacks. R0d-Larsen's dedication to the cause of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is such that he has a monument and square named after him in Gaza City. As the UN's envoy, he shuttles daily between Israeli and Palestinian officials. "Trust is at a low level, so they need a go-between," he says. "They need an interpreter who can explain how things look from the other side. You carry messages between the sides, but you also interpret them, so it gives you significant influence."
Spin the globe and put your finger on a conflict, and there is a chance you will find a Norwegian trying to resolve it. With the Oslo effect, Norway has become a peace superpower. "They are everybody's favourite mediator," said one British diplomat.
In Sri Lanka, an Oslo-style mediation by the Norwegians from 1998 helped to produce a ceasefire last year after 20 years of civil war, and, until last month, talks on autonomy for the Tamils appeared to be making good progress. Norwegian mediators have been involved in Haiti, Colombia, the Philippines and Sudan. Perhaps there are even more peace processes being "facilitated" on the shores of secluded Norwegian fjords. The secret of Norway's role, said Vidar Helgesen, the deputy foreign minister, in a speech this year, is that "we are not a major power and have few vested interests".
Lord Hannay, a former British ambassador to the UN, agrees that the Norwegians are favoured as mediators because they "start with a clean hymn sheet". However, he maintains that some conflicts are beyond their reach. "No Scandinavian is going to solve the Arab-Israeli problem," he says. "That will probably be solved only by the intervention of whoever is the US president."
In contrast with the Scandinavian countries, Britain carries a historical trainload of baggage, which explains why it has largely stayed out of active mediation until recently. The most visible of Tony Blair's special envoys has been Lord Levy, the Prime Minister's millionaire fundraiser and tennis partner, who acts as the often controversial British envoy to the Middle East.
Lord Hannay served for seven years as Britain's envoy to Cyprus. He gave up earlier this year, having failed to achieve reunification of the divided island after the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, turned down a UN-drafted peace plan. Lord Hannay believes that such missions are valuable, even when unsuccessful. "There is the high road of mediation, where you get a settlement," he says. "There is also a low road of conflict prevention, in which mediation makes it less likely all-out war will take place, and violence is damped down."
In Africa, a series of interconnected wars and rebellions has long cut across the continent, from Angola to Eritrea. With soldiers, money, arms and diamonds washing across national borders, attempts to solve one conflict were often undermined by turmoil in neighbouring countries. Now, there are signs of healing along this open wound. Britain is playing a leading role in trying to resolve one particularly intractable conflict: the long-running civil war in Sudan.
Simply put, the war in Africa's largest country pits the Muslim and Arab north against the mainly black African, Christian and animist south. It has raged since 1956 - apart from an 11-year gap between 1972 and 1983. "If you don't fix Sudan, you can't fix Africa," explains one British official. "It is the size of western Europe, with an impact on conflicts in neighbouring countries."
Alan Goulty, an Arabist and a former British ambassador to Khartoum, was appointed in 2002 to lead a British team supporting the Sudanese peace talks. He is part of a "troika" of foreign mediators - including the former US senator John Danforth and a Norwegian team co-ordinated by Hilde Frafjord Johnson, the Swahili-speaking minister of international development - strengthening the work of the chief mediator, Lazarus Sumbeiywo, a former Kenyan general.
Last year, the Khartoum government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the main southern fighting force, agreed to the basic elements of a deal that would grant self-rule to the south for six years, followed by a referendum on whether it should secede from Sudan. Crucial issues remain outstanding, such as how to share power and Sudan's largely untapped oil wealth. But British officials believe there is a real chance that the conflict can be resolved in the coming months.
Goulty, regarded as more pro-Khartoum than the other members of the troika, argues that the British colonial legacy, far from being a hindrance, is an advantage. "We bring greater knowledge of the Sudanese parties. It's greater than that of the Americans or Norwegians," he says. "There's a tendency around the world to blame Britain for their problems. But in the case of Sudan, there is no historical resentment. There's a flattering approach that 'you know us better, so you must help'."
In the Great Lakes region, traumatised by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and subsequent wars, South Africa leads the mediation effort to establish power-sharing governments between former combatants, in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. President Thabo Mbeki has despatched two battalions of peacekeepers to the region. Elsewhere in Africa, debilitating wars have been settled by brute force. In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia defeated Eritrea after two years of bitter trench warfare. In Angola, government forces ended the civil war almost overnight last year when they killed Jonas Savimbi, the head of the rebel Unita movement. He had been a darling of the west but died a pariah. One western diplomat said: "A single bullet achieved what years of international mediation failed to do."
John Paul Lederach, professor of international peace-building at Notre Dame University in the US, is not just a theoretician of peace but a practitioner. He spends six months each year on active peace-building efforts and training local mediation groups.
"If you want a real peacemaker, you should talk to Lederach. He is amazing," a British colleague told me. A Mennonite Christian, Lederach's current projects include working with church groups in Colombia, helping to organise dialogue among academics in Tajikistan, collaborating with mediation groups in Northern Ireland and promoting interfaith dialogue among Christians and Muslims on the troubled Philippine island of Mindanao.
In the 1980s, he was the subject of an assassination plot - he believes by Nicaragua's Contra rebels - as he brokered a peace deal between the Sandinista government and a separate group of rebels in the east of the country.
For Lederach, peacemaking begins at the bottom. He believes that lasting peace can be built only on the foundation of an active civil society. "What is happening in the community is as important as talks between key leaders. If you have peace agreements, but no infrastructure of peace that includes the community, you often get collapses in agreements," he says.
What is the secret of peacemaking? "You have to create channels of communication that are as clear and accurate as possible. In situations of violence, you are rarely in direct contact with your enemy. Much of what I have done is not much more than being a good messenger."
Anton La Guardia is the diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph, and author of Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians, published by John Murray (£9.99)