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Western Press Review: Commentators Look At Mideast, Iran

Prague, 15 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to Gaza and murders in Iran attract Western press attention.

AKTUELT: The peace process does not have an alternative

In Copenhagen, the daily newspaper Aktuelt takes a good-news-bad-news approach to the Clinton Mideast mission, with the bad news being that success seems to invite sabotage from opponents of peace.

An Aktuelt editorial goes on: "The good news is that the peace process does not have an alternative. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are likely to drum up a majority to favor a new war. Clearly, both want to continue seeking a pragmatic compromise. Yesterday, the Palestinians took the right step towards peace (by revoking language in the PLO charter calling for the destruction of Israel) and got the approval of the United States. The result can be the foundation of a Palestinian state. This will be in the interest of both themselves and the Israelis."

NEW YORK TIMES: No one imagines that further progress will be easy

A New York Times editorial this morning also expresses hope that yesterday's nullification of clauses in the PLO charter calling for Israel's destruction would bolster peace.

The New York Times says: "The five-year quest for peace in the Middle East has been characterized by long periods of frustration, but also by moments of transformation and hope. One of those occasions unfolded (yesterday) in Gaza City as many of the same Palestinian leaders who had dedicated themselves to the destruction of Israel committed themselves instead to nonviolent methods in the pursuit of a compromise peace."

The newspaper concludes: "No one imagines that further progress will be easy. Israeli troop withdrawals scheduled for this Friday were still unsettled Monday. The uncertainties of Israeli politics, the violence of recent Palestinian demonstrations and the occasionally overheated rhetoric of Israeli and Palestinian political leaders all complicate the peace effort. But if the unambiguous commitment to peaceful methods reflected in Monday's speeches and actions is faithfully maintained by the Palestinians, Israelis will feel far more comfortable about proceeding with the Oslo agreements."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Most Israelis have come to think the same way

Commentator Thorsten Schmitz, writing from Jerusalem in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, says that now it's the Israelis who are cold-shouldering U.S. policymakers and threatening peace progress. Schmitz writes that the year started out bright for Israel but turned dark by the time President Clinton flew into the Mideast over the weekend. Schmitz says: "Before (Clinton) had even left for home, one local commentator was describing his goodwill visit as 'a flop.' Indeed, the U.S. president had not even been 10 minutes in the country when (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu stood beside him and said that the Palestinians had missed no opportunity of ignoring their commitments; so Israel would not be living up to its obligations under the Wye agreement, hammered out with such patience under Clinton's sponsorship in October. It would not be the first time the Israelis have failed to do so, but the snubbed Clinton responded mildly. 'Peace is achievable,' he insisted."

But, says the writer, neither side has any viable alternative to creating two states in the region. Schmitz says: "Most Israelis have come to think the same way. Unfortunately, they do not get a hearing, because right-wing settlers dominate news coverage with their staged media spectacles. The current Israeli government is the worst thing that could happen to the country."

AFTENPOSTEN: Palestinians have a right to self determination

In the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, political commentator Per Christiansen writes: "Although Bill Clinton did not utter the word 'state,' he was the first American president to acknowledge a Palestinian right to self determination."

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: This is the Palestinians' moment of truth

The U.S. newspaper Christian Science Monitor runs a special article today from Gaza City by Ilene R. Prusher. She writes: "As pageantry greeted the first visit of an American president to autonomous Palestinian territory, the notion of Palestinians as a nonentity unraveled as never before." She says: "Mr. Clinton's visit is just one signal in a long trend toward recognition of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. And in many ways, this is the Palestinians' moment of truth. They are desperate to show they can take on the responsibility of governing civilians and managing an economy. Palestinians generally still perceive the American government as being pro-Israeli. But Palestinians say they have begun to see a more equitable approach, culminating in Clinton's speech at yesterday's meeting of the Palestinian National Council."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The liberal president is the real target of any conspiracy

Looking 1,500 km farther east, Sueddeutsche Zeitung commentator Peter Muench says that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is less than convincing when he blames a spate of evidently-ideological murders on the "Great Satan," the United States.

Muench writes: "Trying to help enlighten people in Iran can be dangerous. For their insistence that individuals have the right to freedom of thought and speech, three writers have paid with their lives in recent days and a fourth is missing. There is a clear pattern for the killings, but no apparent hard evidence leading to the culprit, or culprits. Only one person appears to know who is behind the crimes, the country's hardline religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The United States is obviously guilty, he says."

Muench says: "President Mohammed Khatami, who since his election last year has been working for a careful liberalization and opening up of Iranian society, finds himself caught in a corner. He has been accused already of cooperating with more established forces in the murders for some obscure political end." The writer concludes: "The liberal president is the real target of any conspiracy."

INDEPENDENT: Somebody wants to destroy the civil society

Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, London writes: "Somebody wants to destroy the civil society that (Iranian President Khatami) proclaimed after his election last year and the usual suspects are being fingered. The clerics who never accepted any deviation from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's anti-Western, theocratic regime -- the current supreme leader Ayatolah Ali Akbar Khameinei and his supporters -- obviously come to mind."

AFTENPOSTEN: The Iranian president is between two fires

Oslo's Aftenposten says editorially that President Khatami is caught by both economic and political travails. The newspaper says: "The Iranian president is between two fires. The plummet of oil prices on the world markets and the murder of several opposition writers in Iran may seem unrelated events. But both pose a threat to (Khatami's) relatively moderate policy to liberalize Iranian society."

The editorial says: "In Iran, there is a power struggle between the conservative Islamist priesthood and president Khatami. So far, Khatami has a lead, but the combination of the worsening economic situation and the civil violence may be the greatest peril for Khatami."

LE MONDE: The conservative group itself created a climate of hatred

In the French newspaper Le Monde, Mouna Naim writes that Iranian conservatives have criticized intellectuals for several years. Now, she says, the same conservatives claim to perceive a series of murders of intellectuals as the work of some foreign influence and of "enemies of the state."

Naim comments: "This group did not see things that way during the past years, when it made the intellectuals and writers targets of terrorism. The (conservative) group itself created a climate of hatred for the 'liberals,' giving the green light to a chase against anyone who thought differently." She writes that "Already in 1996, a weekly television series showed the lay intellectuals and liberals as agents of the West, determined to 'contaminate' the purity of the Islamic values."