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Western Press Review: Turmoil In The Middle East

By Erica Hurtt

Prague, 22 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Much of Western press commentary today focuses on the continuing turmoil in the Middle East. Egypt's decision to recall its ambassador to Israel comes in for particular analysis.


New York Times columnist William Safire argues that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's strategy is to provoke a new Mideast war. Safire writes in a commentary: "From his turnabout that so surprised President Bill Clinton at the Camp David fiasco [in July], to his reluctance to speak out to restrain the rioting of Palestinians and sniping of his gunmen-police, [Arafat's] plan can be deduced: First step is to transform the 'peace process,' which was in danger of succeeding in establishing a small Palestinian state, into a religious 'war process' for control of Jerusalem and a state incorporating Jordan and Israel. What keeps Mr. Arafat in power," Safire says, "is not the dubious economic promise of a struggling dictatorship but his militant followers' dream of driving the Jews out of the Middle East."

Safire continues: "Second step is to whip up support in world opinion by creating innocent victims of Israeli guns. Every casualty is exploitable. Every picture of a boy with a slingshot rather than a gun is a small victory."

The commentary also says that Arafat's actions force Israeli President Ehud Barak to walk a fine line. Safire argues that Barak must "respond with seeming toughness, lest Israelis scorn him for being weak. Yet he must not use too much firepower, lest he fall into Mr. Arafat's wider-war trap." Safire believes that Barak will likely err on the side of using greater force and, the commentator says, "be drawn into Mr. Arafat's war process."


An editorial in French newspaper Le Monde also views the Mideast situation as possibly escalating into an extended war. The paper says: "The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians during the past several weeks is on the way to becoming a new 'Lebanonization.' [By 'Lebanonization,' we mean] that a state of war will settle in for a long time, become commonplace and seem to lack any prospect of solution."

The editorial continues: "Some Palestinians think they can force the Israelis' departure from the territories, as the Hezbollah finally did with [the Israeli army] in South Lebanon last spring. And, as the Hezbollah did during more than 10 years in Lebanon, Israel's government now does not imagine a solution other than to fight back with bombings. The bombings then provoke new Palestinian attacks."

The paper sums up: "Neither Yasser Arafat nor Ehud Bark seem able to stop this process. At the end of the road there will be even more dead, a further degradation of the relationship between Israel and its regional neighbors, and a radicalization of Arab opinion that will threaten some [Arab] regimes."


In the Wall Street Journal Europe, Israeli analyst Daniel Doron comments on the Middle East crisis from an economic perspective. Doron argues that the road to peace lies in economic development. He cites the situation in East Jerusalem: "The reason the intensely nationalistic Palestinians in East Jerusalem elected to accept Israeli identification papers, and that those who were not eligible would pay thousands of dollars to secure them illegally, can be described in one word: prosperity."

He goes on: "Under Israeli rule they prospered because they enjoyed far greater civil and human rights than under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. This despite the fact that they obviously suffered from discrimination in Israeli society. The proof was in the market. Whenever there were rumors that certain predominately Arab neighborhoods would be ceded to the Palestinian Authority, real-estate prices plummeted, a sure market indication of the resident's preferences."

Doron believes the key to peace is what he calls the "economic road." He says aid to Palestine has been squandered on paying high salaries to Palestinian bureaucrats, on an army of 40,000 that masquerades as a police force and that much of it has been squirreled away in foreign bank accounts. Doron also says unemployment in Palestinian areas has risen to more than 15 percent overall and as high as 40 percent in some areas.

The writer also criticizes Israeli bureaucracy which, he says, has "retarded economic development." He adds that the Israeli government interfered too much in Palestinian economic affairs.


Egypt's decision to recall its ambassador in Tel Aviv is the subject of a New York Times news analysis (published today by the IHT) by Susan Sachs. She says the move "marks the end of a long period of relative restraint in Arab-Israeli relations." Sachs allows that "[Egyptian] President Hosni Mubarak's action may not mean a return to the days when leaders on each side of the divide spoke to each other through intermediaries, if at all. But," she adds, "his angry response to Israel's bombing of the densely populated Gaza Strip [early this week] does signal that he has abandoned, at least for now, the chatty personal diplomacy that had become his trademark."

Sachs adds: "Mubarak has long staked his political credibility on playing the role of a mediator trusted by both Palestinians and Israelis. But his policy of moderation and dialogue has been sorely tested." She goes on: "Egyptian mediation efforts have failed to bring about any sustained relief from the bloodletting or to restrain the Israeli use of military strikes against Palestinian Authority targets. Instead, they have opened him to a relentless storm of criticism from Arab commentators and other Arab leaders who said he should not deal with Israeli officials until the fighting stops."

Sachs argues that Mubarak is reacting to pressure from Arab leaders to "punish Israel or cool relations with the United States." She also says that Mubarak is facing "demands for stronger actions from his own citizens, who have been exposed to daily news reports on the Palestinian-Israeli clashes."


An editorial in the Britain's Times daily agrees that President Mubarak's decision to recall his ambassador to Israel reflects frustration at what the paper calls the "near-war between Israel and the Palestinians." But the paper stresses that the move also stems from turbulence at home in Egypt.

The editorial says: "Popular anger [in Egypt] has not been confined to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. Among Islamists, there is anger at heavy recent sentences against 15 prominent activists on charges of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. At the liberal end of the political spectrum, meanwhile, there is horror at the closing down of the admirable Ibn Khaldoun Center for Human Rights and the trial of its director [and] his staff."

The paper goes on say that Egypt does not want to risk its leverage in brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, nor -- in the paper's words -- "place any question marks in pre-inauguration Washington over the not unconnected $2 billion a year Egypt receives in U.S. aid. But for the time being," it concludes, the weakness of almost every player, and of Mr. Arafat quite as much as Mr. Barak, bars all routes but bloody ones. Egypt's move is in tune with the Middle Eastern Zeitgeist [that is, current situation]. But it would have been better to have held out against it."

(RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego contributed to our report.)