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Western Press Review: Political, Constitutional Problems In U.S. And Israel

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 11 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The yet-to-be-ended battle for the U.S. presidency between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush continues to preoccupy the Western press today. There's also lively interest in prospects for peace in the Middle East, now that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has resigned.


Looking first at what the press says about the Gore-Bush struggle for the White House, a news analysis by the Washington Post's Charles Lane [published in today's International Herald Tribune] warns of the creation of a possibly damaging constitutional situation. Lane writes: "Abandoning all pretense of unanimity, the U.S. Supreme Court's liberal and conservative members [have] openly attacked each other over whether to stop the manual recounting of ballots in Florida."

Lane goes on to say that "the court's four center-left justices, [led] by Justice John Paul Stevens, publicly dissented from the five-member center-right majority's decision to grant [Bush's] request to halt the recounts and to hear his case against them. Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's leading conservative, fired back with an opinion defending the majority's decision. The analyst adds: "It is extremely unusual for justices to express themselves at such a preliminary phase of a case. The writings Saturday (Dec 9) not only broke that unwritten rule of the court but also left no doubt that members of the court disagree passionately about the merits of the underlying issues in the election dispute."

Ironically, Lane says, "each side asserted that it was acting to save the country from the disaster that would befall it if a questionable electoral process were to go forward, producing a president whose legitimacy would be widely doubted."


In Britain's Financial Times, an analysis by Richard Wolffe takes a critical view of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Saturday to stop the manual recount of votes, which has been decided upon the day before by the Florida Supreme Court. Wolffe says the partisan passions which marked Florida's recount battles have spread to "the most august institution in the land," that is, the U.S. Supreme Court. He continues: "While the Supreme Court meets on Monday (today) to give a ruling that could decide the outcome of the election, its five-to-four split over halting the manual recounts in Florida has laid bare the same partisan fracture which has left Congress almost evenly divided, and the presidential vote almost tied across the country."


Also in the Financial Times is an editorial that says the U.S. Supreme Court has now taken an openly political role. The paper writes: "It is a useful myth that the Supreme Court is above politics, but its justices are now responsible for determining the identity of the next president and for safeguarding the reputation of their own institution. That reputation was bruised on Saturday by the clear evidence of two bitterly divided camps, center-right and center-left, and by the harsh language that accompanied the extraordinary decision."


The British left-of-center daily Guardian is even more direct in criticizing the Supreme Court. In an editorial, it says flatly: "The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the Florida recounts is wrong in law, wrong in respect of the constitution, and wrong in terms of plain common sense."


The conservative daily Washington Times takes the contrary view, strongly supporting the Supreme Court's actions. In an editorial, the paper says that the court curbed what it calls "judicial adventurism" by the Florida Supreme Court. It writes: "The Florida [court] can't say it hadn't been warned. Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court vacated one decision of the state's justices because they had overstepped their bounds in rewriting election laws more to their -- and Al Gore's -- liking."

Apparently, the editorial continues, the Florida justices "didn't get the message" on that occasion. It notes that on Friday (Dec 8), what it considers the Democrat-controlled Florida court again intervened to "revive...Gore's faltering bid for manual recounts and to overturn [Bush's] certified victory in that state."


Less polemical is an analysis in The Washington Post by Edward Walsh and James Grimaldi, titled "Two Justices Could Hold the Key." The analysts say: "The legal teams representing Vice President Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush laid out their cases [in written briefs] yesterday (Sunday) to a deeply divided Supreme Court, where either of two justices who usually hold the middle ground in the most controversial cases could determine the identity of the next president of the United States."

Walsh and Grimaldi continue, saying that legal scholars generally agreed that heading into today's oral arguments before the high court, it was Gore's lawyers who faced the far heavier burden. They said that is because the high court's five to four ruling Saturday ordering at least a temporary halt to the manual recounting of thousands of votes in Florida suggested that a majority of the justices is poised to rule the same way on the merits of the case.

Referring to the two centrist justices, the analysis says that "as so often has been the case in recent years, the outcome could come down to two last votes -- those of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy."

It described those two members as "the court's fulcrum." They essentially hold the balance of power on the deeply divided bench and determine the outcome of many cases by tipping either to the liberal side or, as occurs more often, siding with their fellow conservatives.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Turning to the Middle East, several press commentators are dubious that the sudden resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak will bring much improvement in the overall political situation. In an editorial, the Financial Times says: "[Barak's resignation Saturday] has thrown his country into political turmoil and introduced a new level of risk to the conflict with the Palestinians." The paper describes Barak's move as a "gamble for political survival," noting that he has triggered a snap election, which must take place within 60 days.

"On the surface," the editorial goes on, "his resignation may appear an astute maneuver to increase his chance of returning to power. But his game might well go wrong and so complicate prospects of a peace agreement." It also says that it has been clear for some time that Israel's weak coalition was heading toward elections.

The paper then adds: "By resigning as prime minister, however, Barak hopes to avert a general poll and instead hold an election just for the top job. This would sideline Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing former prime minister, who is Mr. Barak's strongest rival." That's because, it notes, only current members of parliament may stand in such an election, and Netanyahu left politics in May 1999.


The New York Times calls Barak's surprise resignation "a regrettable tactical ploy designed to improve his chances for re-election early next year." Unfortunately, the paper's editorial says, "it is also likely to deprive Israeli voters of the chance to choose between Barak and his most formidable opponent, namely Netanyahu."

The editorial goes on: "That would be shortsighted and harmful to the peace process. Barak must realize that his own courageous efforts to make peace will be jeopardized unless he gains maximum public support in an open election, not an election designed to hobble the opposition."


In the Los Angeles Times, a new analysis by Tracy Wilkinson says that Barak's re-election strategy could easily backfire, and she suggests he is inconsistent. Wilkinson writes that only 12 days ago, Barak told associates that he was going before parliament to announce his resignation. He changed his mind at the last minute and instead called early general elections, saying it was the right and honorable thing to do to save the country. But she continues: "On Saturday night (Dec 9), Barak changed course again and shocked all of Israel by announcing that he would quit his post after all. What happened," she asks, "in 12 days?"

Wilkinson argues that Barak's move was a pre-emptive strike designed to head off rivals within his own Labor Party as well as Netanyahu. But she says it could easily backfire.


In Germany's Der Spiegel weekly, a commentary by Annette Grosbongardt says it is not yet clear whether the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, will choose at the last moment to make a change in the law which would allow Netanyahu to stand for the premier's office. She writes: "One-time army chief Barak justified his resignation on the grounds that he wanted a 'new mandate' from the electorate for his policies. The only problem is, he himself [Barak] remains the same [personality] as before."

Grosbongardt argues that the only decent way forward for Israel is through open new elections and open competition within the Labor Party.