With their old-fashioned emphasis on virtues like feminine refinement and the correct hip-to-bust ratio, beauty pageants tend to bring out the politically incorrect impulses in viewers, many of whom would love nothing more than to spot signs of cattiness beneath contestants' Vaseline-covered smiles and well-supported displays of cleavage. Occasionally, however, world events combine to bring out pageant fans' nobler instincts, with those in the audience looking for some kind of deeper meaning in the on-stage proceedings. That latter response appears to have been at work earlier this week when Agence France Presse and other news outlets began reporting that Anastacia Entin and Gabrielle Bou Rached - also known as Miss Israel and Miss Lebanon - had become the "best of friends" while getting ready for Sunday's Miss Universe pageant at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (Miss Puerto Rico was ultimately named the winner.) "I think the perpetrators of the current Middle East crisis could learn a few lessons from Miss Lebanon and Miss Israel," the German representative was quoted as saying, her comments probably not made in consultation with the German government, an important intermediary in past prisoner exchanges between Israel and Hizbullah. Careful readers, however, might have noticed that neither Miss Israel nor Miss Lebanon was quoted directly about their fabulous relationship, nor were any pictures taken of the well-groomed twosome hashing out plans for a comprehensive regional peace (or even giving each other manicures). Apparently, though, the story was just too good to resist, and the AFP article rapidly got picked up on news sites and personal web pages across the Internet. The 21-year-old Entin set the record straight yesterday in an interview with Rafi Reshef on Galgalatz, telling the radio host that although she and her Lebanese counterpart had been cordial in their pageant-related interactions, their relationship had not in fact amounted to much more than "small talk." Hizbullah's ongoing missile strikes and Israel's forceful response had heightened media curiosity about the twosome, but no deep friendship had formed. The pair had not posed for pictures together, Entin said, because photographs of Rached with an Israeli might have proven dangerous for the Lebanese contestant after her return home, as have similar photos for Arab Miss Universe contestants in the past. Still, "small talk" represents an historic improvement in Miss Israel-Miss Lebanon relations, which in many years have been characterized by Miss Lebanon's government-imposed silent treatment of her Israeli counterpart. And they're a far cry from 2002, when the country boycotted Miss Universe altogether because of Miss Israel's presence. Seen in those terms, perhaps this year's pageant provides hope after all.