“One of the factors that helps breed terror is the anger that many people in the region feel at events over the years in the Palestinian territories.” These words about the Middle East appeared in an article which Jack Straw contributed to a newspaper in Iran shortly before his visit there earlier this week. Given the context of Mr Straw's visit – an attempt to bring Iran into, or at least alongside, the anti–terrorist coalition being put together by the United States with Britain's help – the phrase could hardly have been more innocuous. Indeed, it could have been criticised as too bland. Does anyone who has followed affairs in the Middle East in recent years doubt that “events in the Palestinian territories” are ”one of the factors” that create the anger that breeds terror? Does anyone doubt that a fundamental change in the Palestinian territories will be a condition of continued support by Arab states for the coalition against terrorism? It was perhaps Mr Sharon's recognition of the inevitability of this change that led him to cancel his planned meeting with Mr Straw and to protest to Mr Blair who, apparently, calmed him down. The words of the article in themselves could hardly have justified such an undiplomatic reaction. It is easy to understand Mr Sharon's frustration with the position in which he finds himself. Wherever he looks he sees his best friend making common cause with Arab and Muslim states which are among his worst enemies. At the same time he is being told by Washington to negotiate with the Palestinians so as not to rock the coalition boat. He is losing ground and he knows it – but there is little he can do to change President Bush's current priorities.

Ray Fleming

Another cancellation?

With international meetings being cancelled or curtailed almost daily there must be some doubt over the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting due to take place in Australia next month. This will be less easy to cancel or postpone than most gatherings if only because Queen Elizabeth is due to attend it as ”Head of the Commonwealth” and it is well known that she attaches great importance to this role. It is also known that she does not like changing engagements at short notice; her diary is so tightly packed with commitments that to change even one causes problems for many others. One point that will have to be kept in mind by the Commonwealth Secretariat in advising the Queen is that a large number of Commonwealth members are from Africa and that in the post–September 11 circumstances Africa is, once again, being marginalised. It does not seem to matter greatly to the United States whether or not African nations are part of its anti–terrorist coalition; their support will presumably be welcome but, unlike some other Commonwealth members, they will not be able to make any conditions for giving it – so the meeting in Australia would provide them with an opportunity to make their views known.

Ultimately the decision will probably turn on whether a sufficient number of leaders will be able to atend. If military action has started or is imminent Mr Blair and Pakistani's leader General Musharraf would certainly not want to leave their home base.