There has been a lack of reality at the United Nations in the past week as Iraq has been discussed at great length while the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been ignored. Yesterday the necessary connection between the two issues was recognised when Secretary General Kofi Annan called a press conference to announce the outcome of a meeting about the Israel/Palestinian situation held by members of the so–called Quartet Group – the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

This Group made some progress last year in finding commn ground between the two sides but its efforts were overtaken by the events of Septmember 11 and their consequences.

Speaking on behalf of the Group, Kofi Annan outlined a “road–map” which would provide guidance for a series of measures to take effect between 2003 and 2005. Most of these measures are familiar from past negotiations: on the Palestinian side, strengthened security forces, new elections, recognition of a Palestinian State, increased development assistance; on the Israeli side, agreement of guaranteed secure new borders with Palestine, a stop on settlement construction and a fairer tax regime between the two sides.

A first impression (and this is being written without sight of the full communique promised by Mr Annan) suggests that the balance of concessions required from each side seems somewhat fairer earlier proposals from the United States which appeared to ask more of the Palestinians than of the Israels. However, the Secretary General gave no indication of whether the Quartet's ideas had been discussed with the two parties, not did he indicate what the next move woud be. At least it can be said, however, that the problem which lies at the heart of the Middle East crisis has been brought out of the shadows.

ALTHOUGH Kofi Annan asked the journalists at the press conference to focus on Israel/Palestine rather than Iraq, they ignored his request. This was hardly surprising given that Colin Powell and Ivan Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, were sitting on either side of the Secretary General. Questions brought out a clear divide between Russia and the United States over how to react to Iraq's letter agreeing to accept unconditionally a return of the UN Weapons Inspectors. Mr Ivanov said that no new Security Council resolution was now needed since the Inspectors knew what they had to do and should restart their work as soon as possible. Mr Powell said that on past form Iraq could not be trusted and a new resolution in specific terms was essential because weapons inspection was not an end in itself but must lead to disarmament and reform in several other areas, including human rights, outlined by President Bush in his speech last week. He dismissed Iraq's latest communication as “a quarter–page letter signed by the foreign minister” and said that was not a sufficient response to the present mood of the United Nations. Mr Annan seemed to lean towards the American view, saying that he regarded Iraq's letter as ”a beginning”.

On both Iraq and Israel/Palestine a great deal of work needs to be done before clear lines of progress can be drawn. But, at least, the work is now being done in the right place.

Ray Fleming