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Western Press Review: Middle East Peace, G-8 And More

  • Brent McCann

Prague, 15 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press looks at the talks between Israel and Syria in Washington today, the Group of Eight summit in Berlin tomorrow, the direction of the International Monetary Fund, and Iran's upcoming elections.

NEW YORK TIMES: This time chances seem good

A New York Times editorial today says that for the Middle East, "history beckons in Washington." The paper says the peace talks between Israel and Syria could bring conflict in the region to an end.

Although Israeli governments have tried to negotiate with Syria before, in the words of the editorial, "this time chances seem good that a deal can be worked out in which Israel would return most of the Golan Heights in exchange for a Syrian commitment to peace, recognition and normal trade."

The high ground of the Golan Heights is strategically important, the editorial notes. Before Israel took the Heights in 1967, Syria used to launch attacks on Israelis below. Since then it has been provided Israel with a vantage point for observing a potential attack from Syria. If it is to have the Golan Heights back, the editorial says, Syria will likely have to make concessions.

The paper suggests this: "One plausible proposal would place international or U.S. observers at the Golan monitoring stations now manned by Israelis, with Israel retaining access to information directly affecting its security." The editorial continues, "There might also be agreement to demilitarize a swatch of territory on either side of the newly established border."

The editorial describes Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara as appearing eager to resolve their differences quickly. For Israel, the New York Times says, "peace with Syria and Lebanon would mean that for the first time since is creation in 1948, [it] would no longer face armed hostility from any of its immediate neighbors."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: If it comes off it will not end the hundred-year conflict between Jews and Arabs

From Germany, Heiko Flottau writing in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung also describes the Middle East talks as historic. Peace between the two countries, in the commentator's words, "would at last bring some semblance of order to the jumble of states cobbled together by the colonial powers after the first and second world wars. And that ... would mark a political step of truly historic dimensions."

Flottau is optimistic that, as he puts it, "there are many signs that both sides are serious about relenting -- the mere fact of an Israeli premier meeting a Syrian cabinet minister is proof of that."

Both countries, he writes, have incentives to make peace. On the Syrian side, an aging president is putting his house in order before his son takes over; in Israel, the prime minister has promised to bring the troops home from the security zone in South Lebanon and will now make this withdrawal dependent on a peace agreement with Syria.

But the commentator warns that, in his words, "If it comes off, the arrangement may in time come to be termed as peace or perhaps a permanent absence of war. But whatever it brings, it will not end ... the hundred-year conflict between Jews and Arabs."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Russia has learned that even its weakness can be exploited to make a strength

Tomorrow's meeting in Berlin of ministers from the Group of Eight countries -- which includes the G-7 plus Russia -- attracts German commentary today. Writing in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, commentator Stefan Kornelius says, "There is plenty of ugly, embarrassing irony in the fact that the foreign ministers of the G-8 countries are gathering in Berlin ... to discuss conflict prevention and crisis management."

Kornelius says the irony results from Russia's invasion of Chechnya and what he calls the Russians' "rediscovery of nationalism while crushing a people in the name of combating terrorism."

The commentator asks how Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov should be treated at the G-8 meeting? The answer, he says, is not easy. In his words: "Moscow ... is running amok in the Caucasus. And it is always a difficult and extremely delicate task to bring someone blinded by anger and resentment back to his senses."

With Russia whipped up in nationalism, Kornelius says he worries about "the possibility of a substantial change in Russia's foreign policy." Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is already undermining disarmament agreements. "This is a catastrophic situation," Kornelius writes, "but even worse is the fact that Western influence is no longer guaranteed. Moscow has quite simply disregarded Western views about Chechnya, with officials sneeringly dismissing warnings about [economic] sanctions."

The German commentator concludes that even at the G-8 meeting, the West has few levers to use against Russia. In his words: "Russia cannot be effectively punished for a cruel, excessive war in Chechnya ... because it has learned that even its weakness can be exploited to make a strength."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The giants need the small ones, and vice versa

Also in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, commentator Oliver Schumacher looks at the wider meeting taking place in Berlin tomorrow, where Group of Seven central bankers and finance ministers will meet with those from other countries. In a commentary headlined "Everyone Needs Everyone Else," Schumacher says: "Besides the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, the new summit brings together such emerging nations as Brazil and South Korea, and the two world powers China and Russia." While there are only 19 nations represented, the new grouping has been dubbed the Group of 20.

"Whether the G-20 will play an important role in future diplomatic affairs," Schumacher says, "perhaps even going on to replace the G-7 in importance, only time will tell. The founding concept is by itself sensible and shows vision." The 19 countries represent two-thirds of the world's population and 90 percent of the world's economic output. "On paper, at least," the commentator says, "the new setup is a financial and political heavyweight."

Schumacher argues that industrial nations and developing countries have grown dependent on one another. He puts it this way: "In an age of extensively deregulated financial markets, swings in either direction are almost preprogrammed elements to the equation." He continues, "When they run to extremes, the consequences are generally negative for growth and employment, so it is only sensible for the G-20 to start a dialogue to develop strategies to guard against this. The giants need the small ones, and vice versa."

"But," he cautions, "it is still a long way to the brave new financial superstructure being called for by worthies such as Germany's ex-finance minister Oskar Lafontaine and speculator-par-excellence George Soros."

FINANCIAL TIMES: There could be no better step than the appointment of an IMF managing director who comes from an emerging market economy

Discussion of a successor to outgoing International Monetary Fund director Michel Camdessus is not on the agenda of the Berlin meeting tomorrow. But it is generating much speculation amid a discussion of IMF reform. In London's Financial Times, Martin Wolf describes the task this way: "As an exemplar of bureaucratic entrepreneurship, the IMF is a triumph. It has successfully added new product lines and expanded its activities. ... Yet what is good for the institution is not necessarily good for the world."

Wolf says the Fund should give up long-term lending to poor countries and focus on crisis prevention instead. And appointment of a new manager is the ideal time to refocus the organization. As he puts it: "There could be no better step towards this aim than appointment of a managing director who comes from an emerging market economy. There are many officials in emerging market economies who have an excellent grasp of economics and, more important, have done what the Fund recommends."

The commentator nominates one: "If, for example, someone like Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland's finance minister, were to recommend rectitude to the ministers of an emerging market economy, his auditor would know that he had lived what he preached."

"Readying emerging market economies for an open global capital market," Wolf concludes, "has proved far more complex than first imagined. That should now be the overriding goal of the IMF. The shareholders should choose someone who will focus the Fund upon it."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: A quiet counterrevolution is gaining momentum in Iran

Moving back to the Middle East, commentator Philip Bowring looks at Iran's upcoming elections to the parliament, or Majlis, due in February. Writing from Tehran in the International Herald Tribune, he says: "A quiet counterrevolution is gaining momentum here. It is evident on the streets and in the newspapers, and on February 18 it will have a real, if circumscribed, opportunity to express itself at the ballot box. It should eventually lead to Iran regaining the position in its region that its size, geography and level of development merit."

Bowring says the advance of civil society is, in his words, "reflected in vigorous public debate both on issues of government and on religious interpretation. Many religious [elements] back reform, too, either out of genuine belief in democratic process and freedom of choice or out of fear that the young ... are in quiet revolt against a system which, even after the relaxations of the past two years, remains socially oppressive." Economic incentives, too favor reform.

Still, Bowring says, Iran is still, in his words, "unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Neither a rightist coup against current trends nor uncontrolled street reaction to religious regimentation can be ruled out."

He concludes: "In many ways, the [Iranian] regime remains crudely oppressive. But Iran's struggle back toward the mainstream world deserves more attention and support than it is getting from the West."