Prague, 11 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- We begin our survey of today's Western press commentary with editorials looking at the escalating -- and seemingly unstoppable -- violence in the Middle East. This week was marked by two horrific incidents: the death of a four-month-old Palestinian girl from Israeli tank fire and the murder of two Israeli teenagers. It also brought the interception by the Israeli Navy of a boatload of anti-aircraft missiles and mines intended for Palestinian fighters. Looking at the conflict, Western commentators lay blame on both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and urge the United States to play a stronger role in the crisis. Other comments today look at Sunday's elections in Italy, missile defense, and the plight of Europe's Roma (Gypsy) population.
An editorial in "The Washington Post" writes of the week's events in the Middle East: "The deaths of the children are a terrible measure of how savage the confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians have become. The weapons seizures and settlement plans show that the situation could soon grow still worse." It continues: "Both [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat claim they want to stop the spiral of violence and return to negotiations. But both behave as if they prefer more conflict. [In so doing, both] leaders are racing down blind alleys that they have traveled more than once before."
The paper adds: "That both sides -- and in particular Mr. Sharon's government -- have felt free to repudiate [options like the Jordanian-Egyptian peace initiative and the negotiation proposals put forward this week by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell] and plunge ahead with their destructive and unworkable strategies is due, above all, to the failure of the Bush administration to exert the U.S. influence that has been a vital component of Middle East peacemaking for decades."
An editorial in Britain's "The Economist" weekly calls the comments and recommendations of the Mitchell commission on the Mideast crisis "admirably even-handed." It says: "Careful not to blame either side for the start of the violence, it concentrates on ways of rebuilding confidence [and] getting talks going again. The Palestinian Authority, it says, should take 'all measures to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators.' But [it also says] that 'the cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless Israel freezes all settlement construction activity.'"
The magazine goes on: "The whole point of planting settlers in [the West Bank and Gaza] was to make it hard ever to return this land. [They] stay on, and are encouraged to multiply, even when peace with the true owners of these territories is being sought." Sharon, it adds, "has summarily rejected the committee's recommendation. [But] however distasteful it may be for him, he should take cognizance of the fact that most of the world, including Israel's closest friends, see an end to settlement building as part and parcel of an end to ever-escalating violence."
NEW YORK TIMES:
Another element in the Middle East crisis was highlighted this week when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered a fiercely anti-Semitic speech during Pope John Paul's historic visit to his country, as part of a trip -- including Greece and Malta -- to promote religious tolerance and forgiveness. In "The New York Times," columnist Thomas Friedman writes that the president's "venomous" declaration stunned "even the most cynical observers." He continues: "With [the Pope] at his side, Mr. Assad suggested that Christians and Muslims join in confronting Israel and the Jews, 'who try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ and in the same way they tried to kill the prophet Muhammad.'"
Friedman continues: "For the son of Hafez al-Assad -- who in 1982 killed some 20,000 Syrians in his own city of Hama, after they rose up under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism -- to be accusing anyone of religious intolerance is laughable." The young president's "outburst," he continues, "tells us he is deeply insecure. When Bashar succeeded his father, there was at least a hint in his early interviews and speeches that he wanted to build his legitimacy on modernizing Syria and lifting it from backwardness, not on hating Israel. But since taking office, he has become aware of how difficult modernization really is in a country with a skyrocketing birth rate and a crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure."
In the end, Friedman writes, "Bashar embarrassed only himself with his anti-Jewish tirade. It left him looking like a weak little boy who inherited his daddy's realm for no good reason."
Martin Woollacott writes in Britain's "The Guardian" that it is time for the West to face up to the "Saddam challenge." He writes: "When you poke an enemy with a stick you run the risk that he will seize his end of it and pull you hither and thither. That, in essence, is the story of the United States and Iraq over the last five years. Since [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein moved on to the offensive in 1996 he has proved himself skillful at using the very instruments that were designed to control him -- notably inspections, sanctions, and air power -- to evade that same control."
He continues: "The Iraqi dictator has been aided by the fact that survival for him is a full-time job to which he can ruthlessly devote all available resources. For his opponents in Washington and London, by contrast, the containment of Saddam has only occasionally been a priority." The American and British raids of mid-February, he goes on, "changed nothing. The Iraqi efforts [to shoot down allied surveillance planes] have intensified to the point where pilots have had a number of close calls."
He adds: "The son of the man whose administration devised the 'box' into which Saddam was to be imprisoned is now in the White House. His father's secretary for defense during the Gulf War, Dick Cheney, is by his side, and the general then in command at the Pentagon, Colin Powell, is his secretary of state. It is hard to imagine a group of men who would be more satisfied if they could find a solution to the endless crisis for the U.S. that is Iraq under Saddam -- or a group which would be more damaged by a serious failure."
A comment in "The Washington Post" looks at the future of U.S.-Iranian relations. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under presidents Ford and Bush, writes that despite the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, "dominant political power in Iran is [still] held by a conservative group of Muslim clerics who are repressive at home and support terrorism abroad, who are hostile to the United States and oppose the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and who seek a nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capability."
But one thing, he writes has changed: "the attitude of the people themselves." He continues: "Over the past four years, the Iranian electorate has three times voted [in favor of] liberal change. Sixty percent of the Iranian people are younger than 25, having no direct knowledge of the Iranian revolution and the difficulties with the United States that followed."
The U.S., Scowcroft adds, should seize the opportunity in two ways: First, by not renewing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which prohibits foreign oil and gas investment in Iran in excess of $20 million, and which expires in August. Second, he writes, the U.S. must show strong support for Khatami's re-election bid in June. "While [Khatami] may in fact be a weak reed in this struggle for liberalization," Scowcroft concludes, "he is the symbol of reform and the only such symbol available. A strong win by Khatami would be a significant step in the long struggle to bring Iran out of the shadows."
An editorial in "The Economist" considers the issue of capital punishment in light of the impending (16 May) execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The weekly states that there are no clear guidelines to follow in weighing this moral issue: "The Economist has long disliked America's attachment to the death penalty. But Mr. McVeigh is hardly a typical victim of that system. At least five of the main arguments against the death penalty in America fall away in the case of Mr. McVeigh."
Noting that strict abolitionists argue that the state should never resort to execution, the magazine says: "We disagree. The Economist would, for example, have executed the Nazi chiefs at Nuremberg. [You] then have to find somewhere to draw a line. Where, between Hitler and Mr. McVeigh, should you draw it? [Killing] of any sort brutalizes society. The death penalty does not work as a deterrent and, as a form of revenge, it is crude, to say the least."
The magazine goes on to argue that although clear lines are hard to draw, there is one practical reason not to execute Mr. McVeigh. "It would deprive him of what he aspires to most: martyrdom. Had he been left to rot in jail, there might have been the occasional documentary, but no media circus. He would not appear heroic; he would not be an inspiration to anybody. [Next] week's spectacle in Terre Haute (Indiana) is merely giving an evil man the notoriety he craves."
LOS ANGELES TIMES:
An editorial in the "Los Angeles Times" re-examines the reasons for the United States being voted off the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The paper notes that although the vote "reeked of hypocrisy" -- since many members on the commission have a history of rights abuses -- "human rights records have little to do with how commission membership is decided. [The U.S.] lost partly because European states stuck together to vote for France, Austria, and Sweden. It lost because China, stung by repeated U.S. efforts to have its human rights abuses condemned, lobbied hard and with reported promises of future favors to have Washington dropped from the panel. But it lost too," the paper adds, "because a growing number of states, including longtime allies and supporters, increasingly perceive and are alarmed by increasing signs of an administration ready and even determined to go it alone."
The editorial describes the current administration's recent actions as "marked by anything but humility. Its abrupt rejection of the Kyoto global warming pact, its move to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and this week's seeming hint by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about eventually putting weapons into outer space all point to a shift toward unilateralism that Americans, no less than America's friends, should find disturbing."
Another editorial in "The Economist" looks at Europe's six-million-strong population of Gypsies, or Roma, most in former communist countries or scattered around the Mediterranean. The magazine writes: "They are at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator: the poorest, the most unemployed, the least educated, the shortest-lived, the most welfare-dependent, the most imprisoned, and the most segregated. In one indicator, they lead: they have the most children. In sum," the magazine says, "they are a spectral third-world nation in Europe." Moreover, it adds, "the treatment of these Gypsies is perhaps the most important civil-rights issue in Europe, and one that will have a direct bearing on European Union accession talks and on regional development."
The EU, it continues, is "the Gypsies' best ally. On a visit to Slovakia in February, Gunther Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement, made a point of sticking his head inside a Gypsy shack and promising $10 million for specific Gypsy development projects in the country this year." Verheugen, it says, "is in an awkward position. He is adamant that the 'Gypsy question' will not [delay] enlargement, but he also knows it must begin to be tackled at source before there can be any agreement on the free movement of labor. An exodus of Gypsies into the EU, everyone agrees, would be a political disaster for an expanding union."
NEW YORK TIMES:
Finally, two comments look at Italy's Sunday (13 May) elections. An editorial in "The New York Times" says the candidacy of center-right candidate Silvio Berlusconi, plagued by criminal investigations into his business dealings, is symptomatic of Italy's political cynicism and raises significant conflict-of-interest issues. The paper writes: "Because he controls Italy's three private television networks, its largest publishing house, and a financial services conglomerate, Mr. Berlusconi's political ambitions give rise to a seemingly inescapable conflict of interest between his public role and business interests. As prime minister he could exercise control over practically all television outlets, for instance, since a state-owned broadcaster is the only serious competition he now faces."
The article also notes that the Italian public must consider how effective its new government will be: "[Voters] once saw in Mr. Berlusconi a way out of their nation's political paralysis. But as they go to the polls on Sunday, they must ask themselves whether a government led by him could possibly avoid being distracted by tax fraud and corruption charges that are still pending against him and by the conflict of interest posed by his business empire."
An analysis in the "Financial Times" also looks at Italy's upcoming election and the effect that the candidacy of Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Refounded Communists, will have on its outcome. Correspondent James Blitz writes from Rome: "Mr. Bertinotti's party is committed to supporting candidates from Francesco Rutelli's center-left Olive Tree coalition in elections to Italy's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. But Mr. Bertinotti will run his own candidates against the two main coalitions in elections to the upper house, the Senate," the paper writes. This may take crucial votes away from Rutelli and make it easier for his opponent, Berlusconi, to win."
He continues: "However, political commentators believe Mr. Bertinotti really has his eye on the aftermath of Sunday's vote when -- if it loses -- the center-left will enter a crisis of identity." Blitz quotes a member of the coalition as saying: "Bertinotti will want to be the middleman who decides the outcome of the battle between the social democrat left led by Massimo D'Alema and the former Christian Democrats associated with [Rutelli]."
(RFE/RL's Khatya Chhor contributed to this report.)