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Western Press Review: Middle East At Crucial Juncture

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 27 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Middle East dominates Western press commentary today as Israelis and Palestinians weighed whether to attend an urgent peacemaking summit in Egypt tomorrow. Unofficial indications are that both sides will be present at Sharm al-Sheikh to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but there has been no official announcement as yet. Today's deadline for both sides to reply to the summit's broker, U.S. President Bill Clinton, reportedly has been extended to Friday (Dec 27).


A commentary in Britain's Guardian daily says that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat faced the toughest decision in his long political career as he decided whether or not to attend the proposed summit. Brian Whitaker writes that although the U.S, peace plans upon which the summit would be based "falls well short of Palestinian expectations, outright rejection would force Mr. Arafat into a corner." Whitaker argues that an Arafat refusal to attend, or to make peace, would guarantee that "the violence which has cost 350 lives since the end of September -- 90 percent of them Palestinian -- would almost certainly resume at heightened levels." And, the writer says, "President Clinton has told both sides that if they say no, he will pull out of negotiations. [That would] strengthen the hand of Ariel Sharon, the Likud contender for Israel's prime ministership, [presenting] the Palestinians with an even tougher adversary."


A news analysis in the Financial Times says that, while both Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak feel pressure to make peace, the real problem for each is whether he can convince his own public to accept any deal he makes. Avi Machlis and James Drummond write that "even if Israeli and Palestinian leaders accept proposals for a permanent peace accord framework drawn up last week by Bill Clinton, [both] sides face an enormous challenge selling any deal to their respective peoples."

The analysts go on to say that "most Israelis think that Ehud Barak [has] lost the right to negotiate a historic and far-reaching peace accord since his government has no parliamentary support and he faces an election in less than six weeks." As for Arafat, they write, he "must show that any agreement would be a substantial improvement on the proposals he rejected in Camp David last July." The writers conclude that the only thing that will make a peace deal acceptable to the majority of Israelis will be if "it is absolutely anchored with an end to the conflict." And for the Palestinians, "solid support from fellow Arab leaders will be needed if Mr. Arafat is to convince his own people to back a deal on Jerusalem."


The Wall Street Journal Europe writes that the proposed summit is an exercise in what it calls "deadline diplomacy" and that it is unlikely to result in a deal most Israelis would accept. The paper says in an editorial: "Bill Clinton's term ends January 20 [and] Ehud Barak may be thrown out of office by Israeli voters on February 6. [So] they are men in a hurry, which explains why Mr. Clinton came up with yet another peace plan for the Middle East on Christmas Day."

The paper says that Arafat, on the other hand, feels no time pressures, creating what "diplomats call asymmetry." The WSJE continues: "The self-absorbed Mr. Clinton wants a legacy, [the] embattled Mr. Barak thinks a last-minute peace might save his job [and] Mr. Arafat thinks time is on his side -- so he says no to each more generous offer."

But the editorial warns that "one thing Mr. Arafat unintentionally accomplished when he walked out of the Camp David meetings last July and launched his new Intifada attacks was to give Israeli peaceniks a dose of reality. [A] good many Israelis came to the sober realization that they might have to live for some time without peace, relying on their own substantial instruments for self-protection." The paper concludes: "Whether Mr. Clinton gets a legacy or Mr. Barak stays in office will rank considerably below preserving Israeli security in [those Israelis'] list of priorities."


France's Le Monde daily says that, in the run-up to the planned summit, real compromises have been made by both Israelis and Palestinians. Correspondent Catherine Dupeyron writes in a news analysis that, most importantly, Israel has now accepted the principle of dividing Jerusalem by placing the city's old Arab quarter under Palestinian sovereignty. And, she says, it is ready to give the Palestinians total control over the surface of the Al-Aqsa Mosque Complex, while preserving Jewish rights to the Western Wall beneath it.

But Dupeyron says any peace deal still must solve one issue which so far has shown no progress: whether millions of Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their former homes in Israel. She says that "the Palestinians want the right of return for the refugees, and that is something which could derail the peace process for years to come. There is no chance the Palestinians can get the Israelis to make concessions over this question, and no Israeli is ready to sign a peace deal with such conditions."

The analyst concludes that "it remains to be seen whether Arafat would sign an accord which does not specify a right of return for refugees or, if he does, whether it would be approved by the Palestinian public." She notes: "The Palestinian Authority has made any signing of a peace accord conditional on putting the text to a referendum. [That] public airing -- something to which Palestinians are little accustomed -- is intended to put Arafat on the same level as Barak, [who] also intends to put any deal he reaches to a referendum."


Another French newspaper, Liberation, also points to the refugee problem as the biggest remaining hurdle to any peace deal. In a news analysis, correspondent Alexandra Schwartzbord writes that "the plan put forth by the U.S. president contains a terrible contradiction: [It] is impossible to refuse and impossible to accept, especially for the Palestinians." She continues: "All issues seem to be negotiable for both parties [except] one, the right of return for refugees."

The analyst says that Israeli officials have made it clear that they regard allowing any return of millions of Palestinians to Israel as "suicide" and that "home" for the vast majority of refugees must mean a new state of Palestine. But, Schwartzbord says, "while the Palestinian elite around Arafat understands this reality, ordinary Palestinians cannot imagine abandoning the issue." She observes that "Arafat's offices have been bombarded with faxes and phone calls from refugee representatives who leave a clear message: that they will feel in no way bound by any accord which sacrifices their right of return."


A commentary by Thorsten Schmitz in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung is more optimistic about peace prospects in the Mideast. Writing from Tel Aviv, Schmitz says that "a treaty between Israel and the Palestinians now seems close." He continues: "Sometimes it is necessary to ask a naive question. If [a] summit meeting between Arafat and Barak [now] lies within reach, then why have the two sides been fighting each other for 12 weeks, with the result that 340 people have been killed and thousands wounded?"

He then argues: "If things had only gone according to Israel, a treaty would have already been reached in July [at Camp David] that would have charmed both sides with a final peace status. Most people in Israel want peace. Like the rest of the world, Israelis would like to be able to turn their attention to other essential matters, like the economic recession or the rifts within Israeli society, rather than constantly having to worry about securing their very existence."

Schmitz says further: "The 'Al-Aqsa Intifada' -- named after the mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's historic center -- has served but one purpose: to ensure the protection and growth of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's power. [Arafat's] mini-war was shorter but has proved more effective than the first intifada, because this time, Palestinians supplemented their stone-throwing with live ammunition. The number of deaths shot up within a short span of time, and as the putative 'aggressor, Israel's reputation plummeted at the same speed."

The commentary continues: "That Arafat is still qualifying his expected 'yes' to the basic outlines of a peace agreement laid down by the U.S. [with] some skeptical remarks is nothing but theater." Schmitz predicts that Arafat will agree to a peace plan for two reasons: First, he says, "Arab states with large middle-class populations do not want a war" and, second, Arafat will prefer to deal with "Clinton, an inexperienced foreign policymaker rather than with George W. Bush." As for Palestinian demands for a right of return to the area, Schmitz dismisses them as "nothing more than agitprop. No Palestinian," he argues, "would voluntarily live among Jewish Israelis. Instead, Palestinians will either receive financial compensation or move to the future state of Palestine. But most Palestinian refugees would prefer to emigrate to wealthier countries rather than to the dusty, poor, young state."