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Western Press Review: Israel's Political Crisis, Zakaev's Arrest, And Yugoimport's Deals With Iraq

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 31 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Among the items discussed in the major Western dailies today are Israel's political crisis, following the resignations yesterday of several government ministers; the detainment of high-ranking Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakaev in Denmark; U.S.-German relations, as German Defense Minister Joschka Fischer travels to Washington; and Yugoimport's arms deals to Iraq.


An editorial in "The New York Times" says, "After 19 months of trying in vain to act as a moderating force on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel's Labor Party walked out on the right issue -- the indefensibly high priority he gives to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip." The paper says if the crisis leads to early elections, the Labor Party "should keep to its current course and offer the electorate a real alternative" to Sharon government policy.

Two years of violence from Palestinian militants, the Israeli military reprisals, and the reoccupation of disputed territories "have shredded the Israeli economy and left its poorest citizens without employment, education or hope. But rather than focusing on those real and growing concerns, the Sharon government is pouring millions of dollars into the settlements."

The paper adds, "Anything that causes the settlements to expand makes a future peace plan more difficult." When Sharon refused to redirect the funding for the settlements to social needs, the "Labor ministers, led by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, rightly felt they had no choice but to leave."

"The New York Times" cites an opinion poll published on 25 October in Israel's daily "Yediot Ahronot" which showed 78 percent of Israelis favor "dismantling the vast majority of settlements" as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But the editorial says Sharon remains "out of step" with his people on this issue.


A "Financial Times" editorial says the government crisis created by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was "manufactured" for political reasons. Ostensibly, he resigned because the ruling government would not reallocate funds for expanding the settlements into services for the poor, pensioners, and students. But the paper points out that next month, Ben-Eliezer "faces Labor Party primaries, in which polls have him trailing two dovish opponents by big margins. He is being transparently opportunist in choosing his resignation issue," it says.

Ben-Eliezer "appears to be opposing Israel's generous subsidies for the settlements -- which 63 percent of Israelis said they oppose, in a poll this week -- while striking a blow for weaker members of society." But the editorial says ultimately, Ben-Eliezer's stand "in no way affects the expansion of the settlements championed by [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon."

But the resignation of the Labor Party from the governing coalition "is nonetheless to be welcomed," the paper says. It is "the right decision for the wrong reasons." Sharon "has no realistic strategy to end the conflict and Labor's role was less to restrain him than to cover this up." The paper says what Israelis now need from a government "is an alternative that returns to the 'two states' of Israel and Palestine peace strategy, with a road map to get to it."


Hannes Gamillscheg, writing in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," discusses the arrest yesterday of high-ranking Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakaev and the Russian authorities' demand for his extradition.

Zakaev was in Denmark for a world congress of the Chechen people. Danish authorities detained him at Russia's request, as Moscow alleges he was involved in last week's hostage crisis and in other terror attacks.

Gamillscheg says the arrest of a top Chechen politician indicates Copenhagen's fear, after it displayed initial courage in opposing the Russian request. He says, "Zakaev is sitting in prison because the Kremlin considers him to be a terrorist, not because there is any evidence for a conviction." Investigating the evidence after such an arrest, he writes, is "normal police procedure."

But the circumstances of his arrest are questionable. Why, asks Gamillscheg, was Zakaev invited to a World Congress on Chechnya in the first place, since the Russians had issued a warrant for his arrest? Why was Zakaev apprehended only after the conclusion of the congress? And why did the Danish premier and foreign minister not know about this prominent leader beforehand, even though all the documents from Moscow were available earlier?

Gamillscheg says it indeed seems that the Danish authorities were suddenly intimidated. The postponement of the EU-Russian summit was the first evidence of this, and was the first mistake, he says. Zakaev's arrest further indicates Denmark's attempts to appease Moscow, as Copenhagen serves out its term as current head of the EU's rotating presidency.


In the "Los Angeles Times," European security specialist Stephen Larrabee of the Rand corporation says U.S.-German relations are currently at their lowest point in decades. Yet neither nation can afford to let their relations deteriorate further, he says.

Germany is "the most important economic and political actor in Europe," he writes. "Its support is critical to achieving many of Washington's policy goals. And while Germany is unlikely to participate in a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, use of U.S. bases in Germany and German airspace would be critical."

Larrabee says German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's visit to Washington today "provides a useful opportunity to begin rebuilding this important relationship. Managing the delicate political issues raised by the Iraq situation will be far easier if German and U.S. politicians are not sulking or slinging mud at each other."

Larrabee suggests several ways the U.S. might begin rebuilding relations. Washington could increase consultation in areas of common interest, rather than deciding its own policy and expecting Berlin's to accommodate. The U.S. should also increase defense cooperation, as well as liberalize export controls. Larrabee says Germany, for its part, should seek to modernize its military forces so it is better able to contribute to NATO security.


Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" says if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon joins "the religious zealots and extremists on the far right of Israeli politics," nothing could "be worse for Israel, let alone what remains of the Middle East peace process." The paper writes: "Despite all the provocations of suicide bombers" and the "vocal hostility from other Arab hard-liners, the Israeli people must realize that such a coalition would prove the worst of all worlds. A more extreme administration would close down any possibility of dialogue with the Palestinians while provoking Hamas and others into still more atrocities."

The paper says there seems "little chance of moderating Israel's support for illegal West Bank settlements," which it says remains "one of the most formidable obstacles to a peace deal." The Israeli government "may even escalate its military operations in the West Bank and Gaza, even though the result is wearily predictable: more recruits for Hamas and another ratcheting up of the conflict."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" looks at the political crisis in Israel following the resignation yesterday of several Labor Party ministers in the governing coalition.

The paper says the Labor Party can now "boast that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not brought them to their knees." Of course, the paper adds, this step was taken with ulterior motives, and not solely because of the row over the 2003 budget, which would have provided preferential funding for Jewish settlements on occupied land. Ben-Eliezer is looking ahead to elections and hopes to become the next prime minister. He will woo his electorate and promise a solution to the Intifada.

But such an outcome is far from certain, says the commentary. The resignations will only come into force on 1 November and considering Israel's "unpredictable politics," it is quite possible that Sharon will send his emissaries and effect a reversion of the Labor Party's decision. At any rate, the latter is the loser, the paper says, because according to the latest opinion polls it is clear that the outcome of premature elections would play into Sharon and his Likud Party's hands.


A report by "Jane's Intelligence Digest" says recent allegations regarding the sale of military equipment to Iraq, in violation of UN sanctions and via the Yugoslav state-owned Yugoimport company, "should come as no surprise." The real questions, says the report, are "whether the Yugoslav government will come clean about Yugoimport's dealings with Baghdad -- and why this military procurement enterprise was approved by the UN's 661 Committee on sanctions."

"Yugoimport's close relationship with the Iraqi regime should come as no great surprise to the 661 Committee, which is responsible for approving trade with Iraq." Since all members of the Security Council "are represented on the 661 Committee, Yugoimport should already be a very familiar name, given that it was given approval to export to Iraq under the 'oil-for-food' provisions between 1997 and 1998."

The report suggests, "Perhaps one reason why nobody in the UN -- least of all the U.S. -- appears overly keen to scrutinize Yugoimport too closely is that the company carried out its profitable trading activities -- which funded the regime of the then-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic -- with UN Security Council approval, despite the firm's long history of military exports to the Iraqi regime."


French daily "Le Monde's" leading editorial today says the latest assessment of the death toll from the Moscow theater hostage-taking crisis have put it at close to 120, while almost 250 people remain hospitalized. And except for three or four of them, the paper says most of the deaths are due to the gas used by Russian special forces in their rescue attempt.

"Le Monde" says after the initial international congratulations related to the end of the hostage crisis, the reality and horror of the facts that remain obliges the world's governments to maintain their distance from a regime that does not show any respect for the things required by a "minimally functioning democracy."

Democracies can make mistakes, says "Le Monde," and may even commit state crimes. But eventually they are called to account, to explain themselves and their actions.

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