The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to bar Palestinian delegates from attending the 14 January London meeting provided the Palestinians with a diplomatic coup. Hastily arranged conferencing facilities enabled the delegates to speak to the meeting via video link from Gaza and Ramallah. But by then, the issue of reform had been eclipsed by that of the difficulties faced by the PA in operating under Israeli control. ‘This issue of reform should not be the tree that hides the forest,’ Afif Safieh, the Palestinian representative in London, and the only Palestinian delegate to attend the talks, told the gathered diplomats.

The meeting, which was attended by, among others, the US’ special envoy to the region, William Burns, was also a success for the organisers, providing the UK with an opportunity to temporarily hold the reins of Middle East diplomacy. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said after meeting delegates on 14 January that the conference represented significant progress by the international community in what are difficult times.’

Representatives from the so-called Quartet – Russia, the US, UN and EU – agreed to meet again in London on 10 February to ‘take further stock of the progress which we have made’, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reported. The meeting could pave the way for the release of the much-discussed roadmap for a settlement of the conflict.

Meanwhile, the prospect of any end to the daily cycle of violence in the region seems unlikely. As Israel enters the final phase of the election campaign, its forces have stepped up action in Palestinian areas. At least four Palestinian teenagers were killed in the week ending 16 January, while a 44-year old Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli troops near the West Bank town of Jenin.

For the first time since the second intifada began, Israeli authorities have demolished houses in East Jerusalem which were homes to Palestinians convicted of orchestrating suicide bomb attacks. Two universities in the West Bank town of Hebron were closed on 15 January as part of Israel’s response to a recent suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv.

During the recent bout of heavy-handed Israeli tactics, Sharon has extended his lead in the polls after an election campaign in which the premier’s position has been battered by corruption allegations. In the latest survey of voter opinions, Sharon’s Likud party is predicted to win 33 seats in the 28 January election, up from an earlier low of 29 seats.