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Western Press Review: Mideast Peace Revival Inches Forward

Prague, August 15 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. led initiative to restart peace efforts in the Mideast continues to attract Western commentary.

DIE WELT: The U.S. fills a vacuum

Manfred Rowold comments today in the German newspaper that the United States is leading in conciliation efforts in the Balkans and the Mideast because, among other reasons, there's nobody else.

He writes: "Two of the world's hot spots, Bosnia and the Middle East, have become test sites for American political effectiveness. In both regions, progress towards peace which had been wrung out by diplomatic efforts has been threatened by new rounds of hostility and mistrust."

Rowold writes: "In both crisis areas, the Americans had been letting the reins slacken. But their restraint also made it clear that when it comes to crisis management, there is no realistic alternative to the United States."

The commentator says: "In the Middle East, the United States has a strategic interest because of the significance of the oilfields as well as the potential of military threats by hostile states such as Iraq or Iran. This strategic interest is highly controversial inside the United States itself."

He adds: "In the political minefield of the Middle East, Washington seems to be prepared to stake its prestige to try and put the region back on a path to peace. (U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine) Albright sent (envoy Dennis) Ross ahead before her first trip to the region -- probably at the end of August -- as a reminder to Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat to get together and act against Palestinian terrorism."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: U.S. claims false progress

Rebecca Trounson says in a news analysis that a minor softening of the Israeli stance has enabled U.S. special envoy Ross to claim progress.

She reports: "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acted early (yesterday) to ease the tough sanctions levied against Palestinians since last month's suicide bombings in a Jerusalem market."

She adds: "Most of Israel's sanctions remained in effect. But the easing of the internal closure on the West Bank gave the American envoy one of the few tangible achievements of his brief shuttle mission. Ross also could point to a fragile agreement by Israel and the Palestinians to jointly investigate the Jerusalem attack, and to report their findings to a three-way panel that will include the CIA station chief in Tel Aviv."

Trounson writes: "Even as (Ross) prepared to leave, high-level Israeli and Palestinian security officials held the first of what American diplomats hope will be regular meetings to trade information on the Jerusalem bombing case. They will then share their findings with the panel, allowing the United States to judge how well they are cooperating."

She writes: "The U.S. involvement also provides Arafat with an element of political cover for cooperating on security issues at a time of little or no progress in peace talks, a Palestinian political analyst said."

BALTIMORE SUN: Lack of trust dominant theme

Ann LoLordo writes that wariness and suspicion remain the dominant attitude between Palestinians and Israelis. She says: "Despite round-the-clock meetings this week with a special U.S. envoy, Israeli and Palestinians officials appear as wary and suspicious of each other as they were before the American mediator arrived."

She says: "Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat underscored the lack of trust in remarks (yesterday) to Israeli peace activists and legislators in the West Bank city of Ramallah. 'How can you dance the tango alone?' Arafat said. 'We say is this government really ready to work with us to preserve the peace process and protect it? Is it really ready to do so? I am sorry to say the answer is no.'

"Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to lift the harshest of the economic sanctions imposed after terrorists bombs exploded July 30 in a Jerusalem market, killing 16 people including the two bombers. Netanyahu has insisted that Arafat crack down on terrorist organizations in the West Bank and Gaza before Israel releases $40 million in taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority."

LoLordo writes: "The Palestinians want a halt to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements. Netanyahu has maintained that Israelis are entitled to build to satisfy the 'natural growth.' But the Palestinians say Israel is attempting to solidify its control over land that they want as part of a future Palestinian state. The Clinton administration, in a shift in U.S. policy, has said it supports accelerating negotiations in which the most sensitive and volatile issues are to be decided. Among them are the permanent status of Jerusalem and the future of the settlements."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Harrassment of Christians persists

A news analysis yesterday examined a problem that seems to cut across Jewish-Arab-Palestinian lines. It is the issue of harrassment of Christians.

John Daniszewski wrote: "Across the Middle East, dig a little and there are similar stories to be found. Religious hatred and discrimination are killing some Christians, pressuring others to abandon their beliefs and causing a steady drop in the number of faithful in the Middle East and North Africa, including in the land where Jesus was born and where Christianity has a 2,000-year history."

The writer said: "In this region's archipelago of roughly 12 million Christians in a sea of 275 million Muslims, the troubles are many -- from murders and massacres, forced evictions and conversions, rape and blackmail to everyday bias and verbal abuse, including bureaucratic harassment and obstruction in matters as mundane as getting a permit to fix a broken toilet in a church. Human rights are less than ideal in most Middle Eastern countries anyway, but Christians feel singled out for harsh treatment by Islamic-oriented governments or by extremist groups. Especially now, when political emotions are raw because of the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process, Christians in Arab lands say they are viewed suspiciously as a potential fifth column, a stand-in for an enemy Western world hostile to Islam."

Daniszewski said: "And in Washington, the issue of the persecution of Christians has suddenly been raised with new vigor, especially by conservative Republicans and fundamentalists who have created a ruckus with the State Department and other elements of the U.S. foreign policy establishment."