The Middle East tour of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan could be more than a mere diplomatic acte de présence in the aftermath of the war on Lebanon. The criterion of real success is obvious. In what may well be his last official trip of the region, Annan desperately needs to instill a new perception of the UN among the Arab people.
During the early stages of his tour, Annan attempted but failed to project an image of a more effective UN. His arrival to Lebanon failed to end the Israeli- imposed blockade of the country and he hedged the question of the status of two Israeli captive soldiers and hundreds of Lebanese prisoners.
The future of Middle East peace efforts could benefit a great deal from a less Israel-biased and more effective UN. Given the failure of US brokering to end the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, the UN -- especially the Security Council -- needs to step in fast to prevent the recurrence of Arab-Israeli military confrontations.
This is a mission that requires a Security Council that can and is willing to consider the views and interests of both parties to the conflict. It requires from Annan -- even in the last weeks of his tenure as head of the international organisation -- and from his successor determined and direct involvement in the affairs of the region.
Annan made the right decision -- and sent out a good message -- when he decided to include Iran and Syria in his tour. The fact is that to make the best out of such a positive move, Annan's talks in both Tehran and Damascus will need to go beyond the communication of well-known and long-eschewed US demands on the political and security conduct of both countries.
Annan is not required to swim against the tide and antagonise the US. Nor is he expected snub Israel. On the contrary, the UN chief would do well to build on good relations with officials in Washington and Tel Aviv to benefit of peace and security in the region. In this respect, he could exert a candid effort to convince both capitals to positively consider the Arab initiative for a fresh and serious process of direct negotiations within a reasonable timeframe and upon clear and accepted parameters.
The ability of the UN and its secretary-general to positively contribute to peacemaking efforts in the Middle East would certainly help improve the image of the organisation that has for long been seen in the region as a mere affiliate body of the US State Department and Washington-based Jewish lobby groups.
Nonetheless, reshaping the role of the UN in the Middle East would have to go beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iranian nuclear issue. It would have to involve a more positive take on the situations in Darfur, Somalia and Iraq.
Ongoing efforts to reform and strengthen the UN are pointless if they have no bearing on the ground in one of the world's most troubled regions: the Middle East.