Prague, 6 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Much of today's press commentary addresses the new initiatives in the Middle East peace process unveiled after two days of meetings between Israeli, Palestinian, British and American leaders in London.
NEW YORK TIMES: The entire peace effort could falter
The New York Times writes today: "After more than a year of stagnation, the Middle East peace talks have entered a particularly delicate phase. Madeleine Albright managed to give negotiations a nudge by shuttling between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat in London this week. But if the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian leader cannot come to terms by Sunday on the dimensions of the next Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the entire peace effort could falter.
Israel should accept the withdrawal plan proposed by Washington, yielding an additional 13 percent of the territory it holds rather than the 9 percent or 11 percent it hinted it might accept. That concession would not endanger Israeli security, and it would vault the peace talks, as Netanyahu has long favored, to discussion about the terms of a permanent settlement."
GUARDIAN: The Israeli government may finally have to choose between intransigence and a continuing friendship
The leader in today's London Guardian criticizes Netanyahu's assertion that Israel had "gone the extra mile":
"When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Auschwitz during Israel's 50th anniversary celebrations he said that 'Jewish sovereignty and Jewish power are the only deterrents and the only guarantees against the slaughter of the Jews.' It was a typically combative and one-sided statement from a leader whose understanding of Israel's real situation has always been defective. Jewish power is indisputably an element in Israel's security, yet the strength of others, and their concern for Israel, are also critical. Israel would not exist had Britain not decided that it would assist in the creation of a Jewish 'national home,' and Israel might not have survived without the military and economic support of Western countries.
Since Netanyahu took office, Western diplomacy has been reduced to an attempt to squeeze "concessions" out of his government in the hope that the Palestinians can be persuaded to accept far less than the Oslo Agreement once seemed to promise - less land, less control over what they do get, and less of a stake, or no stake at all, in Jerusalem. Israel has managed to redefine 'the peace process' in such a way that any attempt to question its policies is regarded as an outrage.
Netanyahu in essence wants to take every meaningful card out of the Palestinian hand, and compromise the whole of the final stage of the peace process, in return for a few thousand hectares of land. It looks as if the Americans are not going to play this game. Further negotiations in the Unites States next week will only go ahead, Madeleine Albright said, if Israel also accepts the American proposals [for a 13 percent withdrawal.] As a result, the Israeli government may finally have to choose between the intransigence it prefers and a quarrel with the only country with which it must maintain a continuing friendship."
WASHINGTON POST: Mr. Netanyahu is at a moment of fundamental choice
The Washington Post today is also critical of Netanyahu's claim that further troop withdrawals would hurt Israel's security: "No one is asking [Netanyahu] to compromise security realistically defined. The notion that Israel's security hinges on a percentage point or two of further withdrawal at this moment is not believable. Israel's security hinges first on its strength and on its deterrence capability, both of which it retains...[and] it rests on maintenance of a close relationship with the United States - a relationship he seems willing to strain. Mr. Netanyahu is at a moment of fundamental choice. He must decide whether to confront his right or the United States. Perhaps he feels he will come off better challenging Bill Clinton and Al Gore than standing up to his own right wing."
TIMES: Netanyahu's assertion that anti-terrorist measures are essential to his country are well-founded
The Times of London disagrees on the question of Israel's security. It says: "The various percentages in dispute relate not to people (the contested terrain is virtually uninhabited) but the character of the peace process itself. Mr. Arafat wants Israel to concede enough territory to create an entity that is sufficiently contiguous to be considered an embryonic nation. This requires the various cities under his administration to be connected by a series of land corridors. If that happened, the Palestinians would enter the final round of talks in a position of some strength. They could credibly abandon those discussions, form a viable if fragile country of their own, and adopt a much more hostile stand towards Israel if they do not care for the direction the talks were taking. It is this that Mr. Netanyahu is determined to resist. His assertion that [anti-terrorist measures] are essential to his country are well-founded. It is not his 'right-wing Cabinet' but his centrist electorate that will reject any false compromise of these fundamental issues. The United States would be unwise and unsuccessful if it pushed him too hard on these points."
MAARIV: With this attitude Netanyahu should stay in Jerusalem, alone
In Israel, the Tel Aviv's daily Maariv wrote yesterday that Netanyahu is isolating Israel: "After [suicide bomb] attacks the Israeli government cannot and must not lead negotiations over the transformation of the Oslo peace process. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat must hinder terrorism - this is the first condition for the continuation of the peace process. And if there are no attacks, then there are no grounds on which to hasten the progress of the peace process. What's going on here? Are we making a mistake? In the question of the troop withdrawals we could antagonize not only the Palestinians, but also the USA. Nine percent - no problem. 11 percent - maybe, but with difficulties. 13 percent - out of the question. With this attitude in mind, [Netanyahu] should not fly to London. He should stay in Jerusalem, alone. All alone."
FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU: The only thing all three have in common is the wish not to be the first to give up the process
From Germany, today's Frankfurter Rundschau is also critical of Netanyahu: "One sensed little from the final spurt - a last small stage in the attempt to save the Mideast peace process - although the participants apparently made valid progress. Benjamin Netanyahu even consistently built new stumbling blocks...The Americans have negotiated with the Israelis even longer than with the Palestinians. At present the only thing all three have in common is the wish, which hardly deserves the name peace, not to be the first to give up the process. And Netanyahu? He would like to avoid taking part in the burial of the Oslo accord. But the suspicion that the collapse of the freedom process would thoroughly suit him was confirmed in London."
DIE WELT: It is evident that the Mideast is the loser in the talks
Several German papers are pessimistic about the prospects for peace after the London meeting.
Today's Die Welt from Berlin writes: "The decisive precondition is lacking: the will to reach a compromise. And there are fears that this deficiency will prevail at the next meeting in the USA. After the failure in London one has to ask whether the negotiating opponents - one can hardly call them partners - are at all interested in an agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank. The expectations were set too high, anyway. The hour of truth could not strike in London, because Netanyahu is the victim of power politics at home...Arafat is in an even worse position. Time is running out for him. So it is evident that the Mideast is the loser in the talks. The Palestinians continue to stand empty-handed. And the Israelis have possibly missed an important stage on the way to a peaceful coexistence."
GENERAL-ANZEIGER: Now the world is rightfully blaming Prime Minister Netanyahu for the failure
From today's General-Anzeiger in Bonn: "The principle of hope loses its meaning in the Middle East. The hour of truth struck in London. Nothing works anymore. Now the world is rightfully blaming Prime Minister Netanyahu for the failure of the efforts. For two years he has ensured his political survival by delaying and recklessly toying with peace, with verbose declarations not followed by deeds. In a year's time the agreement on Palestinian autonomy expires. By then an agreement should have been negotiated whereby the frontiers are set out, the status of Jerusalem clarified and the questions of the Palestinian refugees as well as the Jewish settlers answered. Such an agreement, though, remains far off after the ineffectual meeting in London."
EL PAIS: The peace process is entering its "last chapter"
From Madrid, today's El Pais writes: "British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who got little success in his mediations this week, assured that the peace process was entering its "last chapter," a mysterious expression that may hold some truth. Because before the last chapter, there was a penultimate chapter that had to be dealt with. Following the peace process designed in Oslo and Washington, Israel had to withdraw from the occupied territories before the final status of Palestine could be assessed. Now, with the support of the United States, the two will be dealt with at the same time, allowing for a trade-off: some autonomy to Palestinians in exchange for a limited withdrawal from the West Bank...The percentages count, but even more important is territorial continuity if Palestine is to become a legitimate country - and it cannot be any other way -- rather than a multiplicity of separated lands, like the Israeli government is offering."
LIBERATION: The positions of the Palestinians and the Israelis are not as distant as they seem
From Paris, an analysis by Jean-Pierre Perrin and Francois Sergent in today's Liberation takes a slightly more optimistic view, saying: "By organizing this (conditional) Washington summit, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is more or less saying that the positions of the Palestinians and the Israelis are not as distant as they seem...By the close of the London conference, however, it was clear that the Palestinians, because they made extraordinary concessions that they can't renege, are once again the losers of the meeting. As for Washington - by deciding to put the emphasis on final status of the occupied territories - it is laying a daring bet."