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Western Press Review: Israel's Withdrawal From Lebanon, UN-Kosovo

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 7 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Israeli governments decision Sunday to withdraw unconditionally from south Lebanon within four months has sparked a round of commentary in the Western press. Most analysts applaud the decision, but few believe it alone will bring peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. There is also some comment today on the UN's difficulties in bringing peace to Kosovo.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Without Syria's blessing, Lebanon will not sign a peace treaty with Israel

Our selection of commentary begins in Britain with an editorial in the daily Financial Times. The paper writes that Israel's scheduled withdrawal "will not end violence on [the Lebanese] front in the Arab-Israeli conflict unless it is part of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, the power broker in Lebanon. So the July deadline should focus minds in Israel and Syria on the need urgently to resume peace talks stalled since January."

The editorial explains: "In theory, a unilateral [Israeli] withdrawal should end the activities of the [Islamic movement Hizbollah] guerrillas. It should also rob Damascus, -- which has used Hizbollah to press for a return of the occupied Golan Heights -- of a bargaining chip. In practice, however," the paper goes onto say, "Israel runs serious risks in leaving Lebanon without an accord with Damascus. Without Syria's blessing, Lebanon will not sign a peace treaty with Israel providing it with solid guarantees that Hizbollah or other groups would be reigned in. This leaves open the possibility that attacks will reach inside Israel and lead to fierce retaliation against Lebanon."

For the Financial Times, a unilateral withdrawal has "other negative implications." It argues: "Israel's military defeat would mark a victory for Hizbollah. And it would tell Palestinians frustrated with their own peace process that only force can drive Israel out of occupied territories. Given the risks involved and the limited time left," the paper concludes, "the U.S. should step up efforts to restart Israeli-Syrian peace talks."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Barak will only achieve peace when he is prepared to return the Golan to Syria

A commentator in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung says this: "The unanimous decision by the Israeli cabinet of Prime Minister Ehud Barak to withdraw its troops from the 'security zone' it has maintained in southern Lebanon is a huge success for the Hizbollah, which is accepted by most Lebanese as a legitimate resistance force. In fact," writes Heiko Flottau from Cairo, "the 'Party of God,' [that is, Hizbollah,] can now claim to be the only Arab fighting organization to have defeated Israel."

He continues: "The victory gives the Lebanese [Islamic guerrillas] the opportunity to show ... political far-sightedness since the withdrawal should now remove any justification for attacks against Israeli soldiers or their Lebanese proxies. But should the Hizbollah militants choose to keep fighting, they would prove their war is not about liberating occupied Lebanese territory, but rather about the very right of Israel to exist."

Flottau, too, finds Syria important to Israeli-Lebanese peace. He writes: "The Hizbollah, after all, have been engaged ... in a war of proxy for [Syrian leader] Hafez Assad. Their guerrilla war has exerted pressure on Israel to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria." He sums up: "Barak has at least managed to rob the Syrians of one trump card. All the same, Barak will only achieve peace when he is prepared to return the Golan to Syria. For all of them -- the Hizbollah, Syria and Israel -- the moment of truth has arrived."

INFORMATION: The relationship between Israel and Syria could still ignite another major war in the Middle East

In Denmark, the daily Information writes today: "It has taken Israel 22 years to decide to withdraw its forces from ... southern Lebanon. ... The government's decision was the result of both international and domestic pressure -- not least from the families of Israeli soldiers who have lost their lives in Lebanon."

The paper argues: "At the same time, the Hizbollah militia ... has changed as well. From a terrorist group, it has become a movement aimed at hitting mostly military targets." But Information also sees no quick peace in the offing: "Many sensitive Lebanese issues remain unsolved. [Among them are] compensation demanded by Hizbollah for damage Israeli bombings have caused in Lebanon [and] the plight of the 360,000 people -- officially described as Palestinian refugees -- currently in Lebanon."

These issues, the Danish paper concludes, "will quickly emerge as soon as Israel has withdrawn its forces from southern Lebanon. But the most important question," it says, "remains the relationship between Israel and Syria, which could still ignite another major war in the Middle East."

WASHINGTON POST: Syrian leaders are at least partly right -- and that is not a bad thing

Two U.S. dailies also comment on Israel's decision. In an editorial, the Washington Post says: "To the Syrians, the [decision] is a message that while Israel would prefer to extricate itself from Lebanon by reaching a peace treaty with Syria -- the main power broker in the tiny, war-torn country -- Syria will not be the arbiter of Israel's eventual departure either." It adds: "Mr. Barak is effectively putting Syria on notice that it can't improve its bargaining position on the Golan Heights simply by making life more miserable, through its proxies, for Israeli troops in Lebanon. ... Barak is saying that Syria must negotiate seriously on other issues relating to Israel's security."

The paper goes to say that, in its words, "on the face of things, [Assad's] government ... ought to be pleased. Syria has ... long been calling for Israel's withdrawal from occupied Arab lands. ... Yet," it adds, "the Syrian reaction ... has been hostile. Syrian leaders and the state-controlled press have accused Israel of using the threat of a Lebanon withdrawal to pressure Syria. They are at least partly right -- and that is not a bad thing."

The Washington Post concludes: "It is important to read this [Israeli] toughness alongside the other signal that Mr. Barak sent the Syrians last week. In the most direct statement yet that he was prepared to give back the entire Golan, Mr. Barak stated that other Israeli governments had negotiated on the basis of full withdrawal and he would not step back from their position." For the paper, "the combined [Israeli] message is that Syria can get what it wants from [Barak's] government, but that its hand will not grow stronger if the current delay [in peace talks] continues."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Giving arms to lure Syria into 'peace' is downright foolish

The Wall Street Journal Europe says this on the subject: "Journalists really ought to love the Syrians. Not only has their long Hizbollah proxy war against Israel's northern border provided reporters with plenty of work, the continual stream of doublespeak emanating from the Syrian government and its state-controlled media offers lots of juicy quotes to deconstruct."

The paper's editorial notes: "Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara said Israel would 'bear the consequences' of withdrawing without Syria's blessing. [The] editor of Syria's official Tishrin newspaper said the withdrawal plan had 'stirred a new wave of question marks ... over Israel's seriousness about building a genuine peace in the region.'" That moves the Wall Street Journal to ask: "Come again? Israel wants to leave 'occupied Arab territory' and this raises questions about its commitment to peace?"

The editorial also says: "The Syrians ... now seem to be inching their way back to the [negotiating] table. ... [There] is speculation that ... Assad could meet ... Barak in Geneva, and then for a signing ceremony in Washington." Concluding, the paper raises another point: "Nobody should be lured into this [Israeli-Syrian peace] deal because U.S. President Bill Clinton, in a pre-election push, makes grand promises of support ... that may well include military or economic aid to Mr. Assad's Syria." It says: "Land for peace is risky enough. Giving arms to lure Syria into 'peace' is downright foolish."

NEW YORK TIMES: The West cannot yet be satisfied with its efforts to help build a functional, law-abiding society in Kosovo

The New York Times today carries an editorial titled "A Cash-Starved Peace in Kosovo." The paper comments on remarks made yesterday at the United Nations in New York by Bernard Kouchner, the UN civil administrator in Kosovo. It says: "[Kouchner] has a hard enough job trying to contain ethnic hatreds, establish the rule of law and provide for the medical, educational and material needs of a war- battered population. He should not have to beg European nations to come up with the money they promised for these purposes or to send the international police officers who are urgently needed to restrain ethnic violence."

The editorial continues: "Kosovo urgently needs more international police officers to keep situations like the confrontation between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the city of Mitrovica from spreading. ... Ironically, one of the most conspicuous laggards in providing these police officers is France, the country whose troops have been most deeply involved in the Mitrovica strife."

The paper concludes: "The West can be proud of its role in ending terror and mass expulsions from Kosovo. But it cannot yet be satisfied with its effort