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Western Press Review: Israel's Ramallah Offensive, Ukraine's Elections, The Hague

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 2 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Discussion in the Western press today focuses on the Middle East, as Israel continues its military offensive on the Ramallah headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Other topics looked at today include Serbian and Yugoslavian debate over cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal, Turkey's upcoming leadership role in Afghanistan, and the 31 March parliamentary elections in Ukraine.


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says it is difficult to see a coherent strategy behind Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ongoing military offensive on Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. The "Post" says it is hard to see how this action "will be any more effective in stopping the violence than were Israel's previous offensives over the past year. On the contrary, the repeated and escalating use of force by [Sharon] has only helped to further a spiral of violence that has multiplied the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian lives."

The "Post" says that "the key to ending the violence" lies with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, calling him Israel's "only possible partner in negotiating an end to the bloodshed." Without him, Israel will be consigned to "a protracted and unwinnable war" against extremists.

The paper calls Arafat's behavior "inexcusable." But, it adds, it is hard to imagine how the Palestinian leader could have managed to rally popular support for a cease-fire in recent weeks, as Israeli army units conducted destructive sweeps through refugee camps. Nor is he likely to now answer the Bush administration's call that he act against the terrorists, considering that he has been confined by Israeli troops to a few rooms in his headquarters building."

In effect, the paper says, Sharon has "ensured that Arafat will not meet Israeli and U.S. demands." The editorial concludes by urging the U.S. administration to tell Sharon to call off his offensive.


An editorial in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" says that Israel, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is "reoccupying more and more of the territory ceded to the Palestinians under the Oslo agreements." The "force of arms" at the prime minister's disposal is "overwhelming," the paper says.

And yet, the paper notes, "the suicide bombings continue, raising Israeli fatalities since the second intifada began [18 months ago] to about 400. At home, the prime minister is evidently failing in his primary duty of protecting the citizens of the country he governs," while overseas, "his reputation as a 'butcher' grows." The paper adds, "The wounding yesterday in Beit Jala of five foreign demonstrators by the Israeli army will add to that perception."

In Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the "Telegraph" writes, Sharon "faces a foe confident that terrorism can force the closure of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, thereby creating a viable Palestinian state; and that from such a vantage point, the abolition of Israel can be achieved." In response, it writes, Sharon "is being pushed to take tougher measures against the Palestinians by a public horrified at the suicide bombings, in particular that of the Passover gathering in Netanya last week."

The "Telegraph" concludes that Sharon "is failing to provide proper security and to win the diplomatic war." But it adds that "the widespread Arab hatred of Israel with which he has to contend should never be forgotten."


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" discusses the 31 March parliamentary elections in Ukraine and notes that with nearly all the votes counted, President Leonid Kuchma has failed to win a parliamentary majority. Instead, the Our Ukraine bloc of the reformist former prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, has won the biggest share of the vote. The editorial says the challenge for Yushchenko now "is to build upon his limited success in this election and prepare for the 2004 presidential poll," when Kuchma is required by law to step down.

The editorial notes that Sunday's elections were widely criticized by international election observers as being susceptible to fraud, and -- in the words of one observer -- even "incompetent." But the editorial says: "the real offence against democracy in Ukraine is not the willingness of the state administration to manipulate the vote, but its all-embracing influence on life. People live in fear of officialdom, whether it be the police or the tax bureau. To resist such a machine requires great courage," the "Financial Times" writes.

The paper says the EU, in particular, "has an interest in a democratic and prosperous Ukraine, with which it will have a common border once Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary join the EU. It must not neglect its future neighbor." But ultimately, it concludes, "it is for Ukrainians to decide whether to fight for a change of leadership."


In Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Friederike Bauer says a "much-anticipated decision is now reality" -- referring to Turkey's decision to replace Britain as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan as soon as it receives guarantees about financing and logistical support.

But Bauer says this decision is not wholly auspicious. While he says the fact Turkey is a Muslim nation will help its interactions with Afghans, this aspect is Turkey's only advantage. "Militarily, Turkey is not at all ideally suited to the task, and it has little experience in deploying soldiers abroad." Bauer notes that the U.S. was instrumental in the decision to enlist Turkey's leadership, as the Americans have "long sought to harness Turkey, a key member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to the community of Western states."

Regarding Europe's role in convincing Turkey to assume the ISAF leadership, Bauer writes, "Yet again, [the Europeans] have shirked an unpleasant task, delegating it to a country that for years has sought admission to the European Union." He concludes, "By doing its work in Afghanistan well, Turkey now can acquire a wealth of political capital."


A piece in Belgium's "Le Soir" looks at the 31 March parliamentary elections in Ukraine. The paper says the reformist party of former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko appears to have taken the lead after being neck-and-neck with supporters of President Leonid Kuchma throughout most of the voting.

The paper notes that despite claims by the opposition of numerous instances of fraud by Kuchma supporters, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament declared they were "encouraged" by the voting process even if there were some "imperfections." In a joint statement, the Western organizations declared that the transparency of Ukraine's electoral process was improved, but that further efforts are needed to increase public confidence in election results. The editorial cites a member of Ukraine's Central Election Committee as saying that while there were many small irregularities during the vote, they were not sufficient to influence the result of the elections, as was widely feared.


In Germany's "Die Welt," columnist Boris Kalnoky discusses the political drama unfolding in Belgrade, as the power struggle between Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic heats up. The current bone of contention is government cooperation in extraditing Serbian war criminals to The Hague tribunal. A total of $120 million in international financial aid may be withheld if cooperation is not forthcoming. The U.S. has already decided to indefinitely postpone a $40 million aid package after Belgrade failed to meet a deadline for arresting and transferring a number of Hague indictees.

As Kostunica and Djindjic trade accusations over who is to blame for the aid freeze, Kalnoky writes, the Yugoslav economy and public is suffering the consequences. Belgrade politics are taking an increasingly dramatic turn, and the trial of former President Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague tribunal is only adding to the turmoil. As tensions continue to heighten in Belgrade, Kalnoky remarks that Serbia is still "far from becoming a member of the Western community."


In a piece reprinted in Britain's "The Guardian" today, "The Washington Post" deputy editorial editor Jackson Diehl writes the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is partly to blame for the escalating conflict in the Middle East. He says that "it now looks as if the Israeli-Palestinian fighting will be remembered as [a] dangerous situation that, through timidity and willful inaction, the U.S. allowed to become a catastrophe."

Diehl notes that following a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco last June, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a quick trip to the region, where he "staked out a sensible position, calling for the implementation of the Mitchell cease-fire plan and international observers to monitor it. But he caved in as soon as he met resistance from Ariel Sharon." Diehl continues, noting Powell eventually "abandoned the plan for monitors and signed on to Sharon's demand that there be seven weeks of absolute calm -- not counting Israeli assassinations of Palestinian militants -- before the most basic of confidence-building measures could be implemented."

Diehl adds the U.S. has also not offered the Palestinians "any vision of a serious political process or, more importantly, [put] pressure on Sharon." He says that no amount of U.S. effort is now likely "to produce a peace settlement between Arafat and Sharon, since neither man really wants one." But he adds that the U.S. decision to disengage "is starting to look like an error of historic proportions."


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," author and political commentator Victor Davis Hanson looks at the Mideast conflict from a broad historical perspective, and says history is not on the Palestinians' side. Hanson says the current violence "is not only commonplace in history's harsh calculus, but prevalent even throughout the Arab world today. [Kuwait] ethnically cleansed all Palestinians -- perhaps a third of a million -- just a decade ago. Well after the 1967 Six Day War, the Jordanians themselves slaughtered thousands."

In the current confrontation with Israel, the Palestinians "have turned to suicide bombers -- terrorists boasting of a new and frightening tactic that cannot be stopped. But they should recall the kamikazes off Okinawa [during World War II] that brought death, terror, and damage to the American fleet -- before prompting horrific responses that put an end to them for good."

In general, says Hanson, "the record of terrorist bombers -- whether Irish, Basque, or Palestinian -- who seek to reclaim 'occupied' lands is not impressive in winning either material concessions or the hearts and minds of the world."

Hanson says the world should strive for peaceful relations with all the dictatorships, theocracies, and monarchies of the Middle East -- as well as for a Palestinian state. But he says "the day is growing late; our patience is now exhausted; and sadly, an hour of reckoning is nearing for [us] all."


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger says the ongoing Israeli military offensive in Ramallah and the West Bank "will not prevent further suicide bombings. Israel cannot win this war, but it could end up even more isolated." He adds, "Even without considering the suffering of the innocent victims, the political rationale of this venture must be called into question."

Frankenberger writes: "Whether or not the allegation that Arafat is behind the Palestinian terrorist network is in fact true, there can be no doubt that the suicide squads are being sent out by radical Islamic, Palestinian groups -- including some associated with [Arafat] -- that have absolutely no interest in ending the violence and putting Palestinian-Israeli relations back on the road to normalization. Instead, these groups want to keep the conflict going. Their cold-blooded reasoning is that the dual impact of terrorism and international criticism will force the Israeli government to withdraw from the occupied territories and make concessions." In the end, Frankenberger concludes, "they believe violence will pay and bring them closer to their political goals."


In "The Washington Post," staff writer Daniel Williams says Israel's tactics in Ramallah may be undermining its own aims. He writes that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "has openly declared war on the entire Palestinian Authority. He considers it the head of a 'coalition of terror.' In Ramallah, that has meant that none of the authority's security institution is immune."

But Williams says this tactic seems to contradict U.S. President George W. Bush's "repeated demand that Arafat call on his forces to curb terrorists. If Arafat wanted to call on his troops, they are at best paralyzed," he writes. "In the case of the National Forces, either they are in hiding or in Israeli custody. The headquarters of Preventive Security -- which has occasionally spearheaded roundups of leaders of terrorist groups -- is surrounded by tanks and armored troop carriers."

In one Israeli raid, Williams writes, a Palestinian "was shot in the leg and died after being carried to the ground four stories below, where he bled to death. Another died when he left the building, hands over his head, and the Israelis shot him in the head." He says this episode exemplifies "the style and dangers of Israel's building-to-building searches in four days of occupation of Ramallah." Israel's targets "appear to be diffuse, and in the case of this raid, include just the kind of forces Arafat is supposed to call on to rein in suicide bombers."


In "The New York Times," columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, "Beyond the daily heartbreak of the Middle East is a larger tragedy in international relations, the boomerang syndrome" -- which dictates that each side in the conflict is actually undermining its cause with its choice of tactics.

Kristof says with each suicide bombing, the Palestinians increase the chance that Israel will visit more violence upon them. He says the Palestinians "have even made respectable in Israel the hard-line view -- supported by 46 percent in a recent poll -- that Palestinians should be kicked out of the West Bank -- a sort of ethnic cleansing of the Holy Land."

Yet Kristof says the same boomerang effect applies to Mr. Sharon's policies: "Each time he bulldozes more Arab homes, each time he kills Palestinians and their hopes, he creates more terrorists." He says Sharon's policy has been "worse than ineffective; it is aggravating the terrorism."

Kristof goes on to remark that the Israeli press is becoming increasingly critical of Sharon's tactics, and has noted "that the prime minister seems to have a habit of getting into messes without working out how to extricate himself." As for the question of what Israel can possibly do, Kristof says, "There are no optimal outcomes here, only some that are less horrendous than the one toward which we are now spinning out of control."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)