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Western Press Review: Israel-Arab Peace Efforts, Austria

Prague, 2 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary deals with a variety of issues today. They range from prospects for peace in the Middle East through the continuing controversy over Austria's coalition government to Iran and the declining value of the euro, the European Union's single currency.

NEW YORK TIMES: This is the real deal

Commentaries in the New York times and the Los Angeles Times examine the question of whether Israel can make peace with its Arab residents and neighbors. In the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman argues for generosity from both the Israelis and the Palestinians as they progress in the final-status talks that began yesterday in the southern Israeli resort of Eilat.

Friedman says that both sides already know what the outlines of their deal will be. The Palestinians will get back 90 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza, with Israel keeping the 10 per cent where most Israelis now live. "The big question," he goes on, "is whether the Israeli and Palestinian ruling coalitions can hold together for such a tough compromise." He says pointedly: "Don't kid yourself -- we're approaching the moment of truth here, and for both Israelis and Palestinians it could be a moment of civil war."

Friedman also says that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will have to prepare Palestinians for the fact that they won't get everything they want from the deal. And, he adds, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak will have to be mature enough to give something in return. "This is not a test," the commentator concludes. "This is the real deal. Completing it and implementing it are going to be wrenching experiences for both societies. Not doing so will be a disaster."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Peace with Syria will have to wait until a leader emerges in Damascus who recognizes that peace

In the Los Angeles Times, Yossi Halevi -- a writer for Israel's Jerusalem Report magazine -- takes a bleak view of the prospects for peace between Israel and Syria. He blames Syria's president, Hafez al-Assad, for the current stalemate, writing: "No Arab leader has done more to alienate Israeli public opinion during critical peace talks than [Assad]." He notes that Assad has refused to negotiate face-to-face with Barak, that his foreign minister refused to shake Barak's hand while in the U.S., and that Assad's official newspaper has claimed that Israel invented the Holocaust.

Halevi continues: "No Arab leader has demanded more concessions from Israel and offered less in return than Assad. He even managed to alienate the Israeli left, which usually sympathizes with the Arab position in Middle East peace talks." The commentator concludes that Assad probably doesn't want a deal because it would deprive him of some of his power. "Peace with Syria, the last confrontation state on Israel's borders, is a vital Israeli interest," he says. "But that will have to wait until a leader emerges in Damascus who recognizes that peace, and not just the return of territory, is also a vital Syrian interest."

NEW YORK TIMES: For the old continent's new democracies, national sovereignty must not be an excuse for failing to learn the lesson of the past

In a commentary for the New York Times, former Hungarian parliament member Miklos Haraszti criticizes Central European governments for their reluctance to go along with the European Union's isolation of Austria for its inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party in a coalition government. He writes: "Since Joerg Haider's far-right [group] entered the Austrian government, Western Europe has held fast with a rejection that is surprising for both its fervor and its unity. But," he says, "even more surprising -- and alarming as well -- is the unity of resistance that the EU's sanctions against Austria have inspired in Austria's eastern neighbors. The move against Austria has cut close to home in post-Communist Central Europe," he adds, "where calculated cooperation with extremists in parliamentary politics is, unfortunately, an everyday reality."

Haraszti argues that, by banning any official cooperation with the Austrian far right, the EU "has, in effect, redefined the political conditions for membership Now." he says, "Austrians and their eastern neighbors have to decide if they will hide behind an outdated notion of sovereignty or will contribute to a European federation determined to exile extremism."

Haraszti is especially critical of Czech parliament speaker Vaclav Klaus -- who wrote a letter of solidarity to Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel -- and of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who invited Schuessel to visit Budapest last week. He sums up: "The danger of cooperating with extremists is the ultimate lesson of Europe's inglorious past century. For the old continent's new democracies, national sovereignty must not be an excuse for failing to learn that lesson."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Euro-landers should worry about the economic problems

On another EU problem, Britain's Daily Telegraph issues a warning today to "euro-landers" -- people live in the 11 EU member-states that have adopted the euro -- about their steadily deteriorating single currency. "For the time being, euro-landers are not suffering," it says. "But they might reasonably be a little concerned."

First, the paper's editorial says, there are signs that the euro's decline will lead to higher inflation in the near future. Euro-landers should also worry about the economic problems that are causing the currency's present weakness. It says: "Foreigners -- and locals, too -- are reluctant to invest in euro-land. Most of the [euro] member countries are seen as having low underlying growth, taxes that are too high and administrative burdens that are too heavy. Gradually, faith in the currency itself is ebbing away,"

The editorial concludes: "Nobody has even known the euro to do anything but fall and the [EU's] European Central Bank [which oversees the currency] is untested. It has never raised interest rates aggressively. Is it capable of doing so? Has it got the guts and the independence? Euro-landers cannot know for sure."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Mr. Khatami and his reformists are clever enough to make a smooth transition happen

Turning to Iran, two papers argue there's no reason to panic over the recent crackdown on the reformist press in Iran. The Financial Times writes that Western governments are understandably worried about decisions by Iran's conservative judiciary to close more than a dozen reformist newspapers. But, its editorial says, "the West's best strategy is to say and do little to risk upsetting a precarious state of affairs."

The paper notes that moderate president, Mohammad Khatami commands loyalty among Iranians, and argues he has so far acted wisely: "[Khatami's] appeals for calm and unity have been heeded, even by the student movement. His position as a mid-ranking cleric at the same time gives the president credibility with the conservatives. That is why Mr. Khatami is probably the only person who can engineer a smooth transition."

The editorial concludes: "Apart from an extreme minority, Iran's conservatives realize they cannot resist change. Progress will be bumpy. But Mr. Khatami and his reformists are clever enough to make it happen."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Even the Iranian extremists now care about appearances and public opinion

Today's Wall Street Journal Europe argues that, despite the crackdown on the press, there is still reason to believe Iran will proceed with reforms. The paper notes that on Saturday the conservative press court shut down a hard-line conservative weekly, a development it describes as "hopeful."

The editorial says: "Many believe that [the journal] Jebhe was closed by the clerics in order to deflect criticism that they were only silencing the voices of the democratically supported reformers. In short, even the Iranian extremists now care about appearances and public opinion -- a new development in a land where the idea of loyal opposition seems as foreign as blue jeans."