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Western Press Review: Worries Over Mideast Peace Process

Prague, 25 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Increasing tensions between Israel's Government and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have drawn considerable attention in recent Western press commentary. Analysts are worried that the growing lack of trust between Arafat and Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu could lead to a total breakdown in the stalled Mideast peace process.

In editorials over the weekend, two highly influential U.S. newspapers, the "New York Times and the "Washington Post," put much of the blame for the recent tensions squarely on Arafat.

NEW YORK TIMES: Arafat fails to grasp how much damage he does to himself

The paper wrote Saturday: "More than once in his long career Yasser Arafat has shown a knack for making exactly the wrong symbolic gesture at exactly the wrong time. This past week, he did it again, publicly embracing the leaders of militant Islamic organizations that endorse suicide bombing less than a month after a deadly explosion in Jerusalem wrecked a promising American effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks." Arafat, the paper, continued "still fails to grasp how much damage he does to himself and the Palestinian cause by inflammatory displays like this one."

The Times' editorial went on to say that "Arafat undoubtedly thought he was showing his own toughness in the face of Netanyahu's halting of fund transfers to the Palestinian authority and Israel's public demands for the arrest of certain Islamic militants." But the paper said: "Arafat must learn that he cannot show the slightest provocation on the issue of terrorism and still retain any hope of progress toward a peace settlement. He must also understand," the paper concluded, "that Washington cannot press the Netanyahu Government toward greater flexibility...while Arafat shows doubts about his own commitment to nonviolence."

WASHINGTON POST: Arafat must deliver promptly and unequivocally on his pledge of security cooperation with Israelis

A Saturday editorial called last Wednesday's "photograph of Yasser Arafat...embracing a leader of a group that sponsors terrorism against ugly thing." The paper wrote: "It indicates a careless measure of provocation, cynicism and weakness in Mr. Arafat's political posture...The picture and what it represents are the more distressing for coming in a cycle that began with the suicide bombs that took 14 lives in Jerusalem at the end of July." To deal with the immediate situation, the paper said, Arafat must "deliver promptly and unequivocally on his pledge of security cooperation with the Israelis. Along with that he must begin to act to rein in his calculated public defiance of Israelis and decent people everywhere on the issue of violence."

The paper continued: "The main issue is Palestinian seriousness. No claimed lapses or shortcoming of Israeli policy can justify or compensate for the fundamental failure of the Palestinian authority to act in good faith on terrorism. Mr. Arafat's disgraceful performance unites Israelis and advocates of international order in a challenge to (his) integrity as a negotiating partner." The paper concluded: "This is the burden that the Palestinians must ease to rescue their weakened position at the flagging Middle East peace talks."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Netanyahu and Arafat are at the most dangerous point of the peace process journey

In a recent commentary in the German paper, Foreign Editor Josef Joffe said that the road to Israeli-Palestinian peace "has lately been almost entirely downhill. Over the past half year, both sides have been doing what has struck anger and fear in the heart of the other." One reason for this, Joffe suggests, is "Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a predilection for building Jewish homes in the middle of Arab areas and who, after the latest Palestinian attack in which 14 people were killed in Jerusalem again locked the gates to Palestinian workers from Gaza and froze tax money which Israel collects on behalf of Palestinian authorities." But Arafat is at least as equally responsible, Joffe continued: "Now it is not Netanyahu but Arafat who has contributed a chapter to the book of Middle East folly."

Joffe castigated Arafat for meeting publicly last week with leaders of extreme Islamic groups and even threatening "a return to the seven-year-old Intifada revolt." Joffe said that no Israeli is likely to "buy" these actions are peaceful ones. He wrote: "Even (Israeli) doves...are seeing their worst fears realized: an Arafat who either is too weak to stand up to the terrorist or -- and this is worse -- who intends joining them." Joffe concluded on a particularly pessimistic note, writing: "Both Netanyahu and Arafat are now at the most dangerous point of the journey which began in Washington (with the 1993 peace-process accord). To pacify domestic opponents they are both doing things that make the other side think that the last shreds of the desire to achieve peace have disappeared. That way, neither will reach the goal."

WASHINGTON POST: Arafat's aides say his political legitimacy would erode if he gave in to U.S. and Israeli demands

Writing from Jerusalem yesterday in a news analysis, correspondent William Drozdiak said that Arafat's "conciliatory gestures toward radical Muslim groups suspected of perpetrating terrorist gestures outraged much of Israel and the Western world." Drozdiak wrote: "Nearly fours years after he signed the Oslo peace accords, Arafat finds himself trapped by conflicting gestures that threaten to undermine his self-governing authority, destroy his fragile partnership with Israel and shatter his dream of establishing a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital." The correspondent continued: "The self-styled father of the Palestinian revolution is renowned for his survival skills in times of political peril. But this time, his fate seem intertwined more than ever with an Israeli Government that profoundly distrusts him, yet loathes even more the extremist alternatives to his leadership."

In the current political climate, Drozdiak added, "Arafat's top aides say he had no choice but to reject Israeli and American demands that he round up more than 200 suspected Islamic activists and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. They argue that if (Arafat) caves in to such conditions, his political legitimacy would be greatly eroded and the popularity of Hammers and other implacable foes of the peace process would continue to surge."

KNIGHT RIDDER: Arafat must satisfy his Palestinian critics

In an earlier analysis, correspondent Barbara Demick said that Arafat's actions "underscore his need to satisfy his own Palestinian critics at a time when his proudest achievement, the 1993 peace accord with the Israelis, is in jeopardy." She wrote: "The same man who assures American mediators he will act decisively against terrorism is driven by domestic political considerations to adopt a defiant tone when addressing a Palestinian constituency struggling to survive an Israeli economic blockade." Nevertheless, Demick wrote from Ramallah, Arafat's two-day national-unity meeting with Palestinian politicians and Islamic militants "appeared to be less of a genuine policy debate than an occasion for public speechifying. Its message, she said, "was aimed at much the international diplomatic community as at the Palestinian audience. Arafat himself used the meeting to elaborate on the defiant tone he has taken in his public speeches in the three weeks since the Jerusalem bombing."

In conclusion, Demick cites the remark of Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator, as he left the so-called Palestinian Unity conference in Ramallah last week. "I wouldn't say that this is war," Shaath said, "but defiance, definitely yes."