Prague, 17 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Recent developments in the Middle East peace process evoke several commentaries in the Western press today. Other comments touch on Slovakia's bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, this week's annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Riga, and recent proposals for turning the European Union into a two-tier organization.
GUARDIAN: Barak remains Israelis' best bet
Comments on the Middle East focus largely on this week's explosion of Palestinian-triggered violence in the West Bank and Gaza, which killed at least three, wounded hundreds and involved -- for the first time -- direct exchanges of fire between Israeli troops and Palestinian police. Reviewing the violence, Britain's Guardian daily asks in an editorial: "Can [Israeli Premier Ehud] Barak Deliver?"
The paper writes: "A recent survey showed that 71 percent of Palestinians still support the peace process. But only 13 percent now believe Mr. Barak can deliver the framework for a September [peace] agreement, or indeed any agreement at all." It continues: "The Palestinians are not alone in questioning the Israeli leader's capabilities. Divisions within his coalition on domestic policy, and voter concerns about jobs and taxes, have reduced his room for maneuver in the peace talks. In less than a year, his approval rating has fallen below 40 percent."
The editorial argues nonetheless: "If Israelis are serious about peace being the top priority, Mr. Barak remains their best bet. He must do better, faster, particularly in the talks with [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat; and they must support him. Some speculate about a comeback by ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To use the current Palestinian term," the paper concludes, "that really would be risking 'nakba' [catastrophe]."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Things have rarely looked brighter for the Palestinians
The Wall Street Journal Europe is inclined to give Barak the benefit of its doubts. In its editorial, the paper says: "Many of us have had doubts about Mr. Barak's unilateral concessions of occupied territories in the West Bank and in Lebanon to his Arab opponents, and it is by no means certain that his strategy will work. But it has some logic." The paper continues: "This week saw the Israeli cabinet's agreement to cede three Palestinian-dominated suburbs of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority and [it also saw] the further withdrawal of Israeli defenses from southern Lebanon. Both actions are being taken without an explicit quid pro quo in place, and it is highly doubtful that Israel will see any return on these investments in goodwill."
The editorial goes on: "The reality on the ground is that the Palestinians are not powerful enough to force concessions Israel does not choose to make -- at least not yet. Mr. Barak's new unilateralism makes clear that concessions by Israel are more or less voluntary. This cold fact is brought into stark relief by Mr. Barak's [announced July] withdrawal from Lebanon, and Syria's peevishness over it."
The paper sums up: "Make no mistake: Mr. Barak's strategy is fraught with danger. This week's violence, the worst in years, is a sign that lasting peace is still far off. It was touched off when Palestinians in Ramallah, with the apparent blessing of the Palestinian Authority, took to the streets in observance of "Al Nakba" -- the "catastrophic" establishment of the Israeli state." It adds: "Despite the recent stalemate, things have rarely looked brighter for the Palestinians, and continued intransigence and violence in the face of Mr. Barak's concessionary mood only make them look worse."
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: The first real ingredients for a final deal have been put into the mix
The Christian Science Monitor says that, despite this week's violence, "there is some good news to report" about Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. The paper writes: "The first real ingredients for a final deal between Palestinians and Israelis have been put into the mix. Never mind the fact that the two sides' forces shot at each other during protests. That just confirms the frustration over slow progress since the 1993 Oslo accords."
"Last month," the editorial adds, "Israel declared that peace means the creation of a Palestinian state. Then on May 9, its parliament agreed to turn over a West Bank village, Abu Dis, that might serve as a Palestinian capital in an enlarged Jerusalem.
And secret talks are under way [in Stockholm] that could solve two other sticking points: a symbolic return of Palestinian refugees and granting the Palestinians control of 80 to 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza (up from the present 40 percent)."
The paper sums up: "Both Barak and Arafat, however, face tough domestic opposition to making necessary compromises. And on another peace track, Mr. Barak faces a difficult task in pulling troops out of Lebanon. Much can be done to grease the path to peace," it concludes. "Arafat can punish his policemen who shot at Israelis. Barak can release more Palestinian prisoners, halt expansion of Israeli settlements, and not link land transfers to 'final status' talks."
FINANCIAL TIMES: Slovakia now meets just about all OECD's entry criteria
In other comment today, Britain's Financial Times discusses Slovakia's efforts to join the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. The paper writes: "Once upon a time, belonging to the OECD denoted that a country was a fully paid-up member of the rich club. But that distinction has faded," it says. "Not only has the OECD opened its doors to more advanced developing countries. Some, such as Mexico and South Korea, suffered economic catastrophe soon after they joined."
The paper's editorial notes: "The U.S. is now citing these unfortunate examples to block Slovakia's admission as the OECD's 30th member. Washington says the organization can afford no more botched accessions. It insists Slovakia prove that efforts to set in order its economy -- and particularly its financial system -- are working." The paper finds the U.S. objections "short-sighted and unfair. They appear inspired less by an objective appraisal of the country's specific circumstances," it writes, "than by the U.S. Treasury's concern about damage done to the reputation of international institutions by the International Monetary Fund's embarrassments in Russia and Ukraine. As another East European country, it seems, Slovakia risks being made a scapegoat."
Slovakia, the paper argues, "deserves better. In the 18 months since its government was elected," it says, "[Slovakia] has shown courage and success in clearing up the economic mess inherited from Vladimir Meciar, the country's authoritarian former prime minister. The unhealthy crony capitalism he fostered has been banished in favor of bold market-oriented reforms, while the country's banking system has been re-capitalized and will soon be privatized. Helped by strong exports, the economy is growing, and the OECD's secretariat says Slovakia now meets just about all its entry criteria."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Go eastward faster
Discussing another multilateral organization important to former communist states -- the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or EBRD -- Wall Street Journal Europe Editor Fred Kempe offers some advice to its likely new chief, French Treasury director Jean Lemiere. Kempe writes: "[First,] go eastward faster. The [EBRD] was meant to be a bridge, not a pier, and some countries are almost across it. So," he adds, "step up what's called 'graduation," and get the region's most successful countries -- Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia -- off EBRD books. At the same time," he counsels, "shift resources to countries that need you most. [By] completing and financing two Ukrainian nuclear plants, for instance, you not only promote safety but also national security and independence."
Then, Kempe tells Lemiere, "decentralize operations. Reduce your London [headquarters] staff and build up in-country operations instead. Follow the lead of the private sector and create country directors who have investment and lending limits." He adds: "Increase the limits of those who show success. While you decentralize the business, however, step up compliance controls. As you move further east, corruption and temptation increase."
Kempe also advises: "Don't confuse EU accession with economic transition." He explains: "There's some talk at the bank of splitting your portfolio and passing on your business with the 10 [East European] country-candidates for EU membership to the European Investment Bank -- or EIB -- the EU's development facility. Don't do it," he says. "The EIB doesn't have your private-sector instincts, your investment banking expertise, or your stomach for tough deals."
Finally, Kempe sums up: "Remember that the EBRD should be more of a cause than a self-perpetuating institution. By moving eastward, cutting costs, decentralizing operations, fighting corruption and selling off mature assets for profit, you'll be embracing the entrepreneurial times and serving your mandate."
POLITIKEN: Divisions within the EU must not be used to promote particular political or economic ideas
In Denmark, the daily Politiken assesses proposals to turn the EU into a two-tier organization -- with one group moving quickly toward further integration, a second more slowly. The paper says: "The biggest problem of an enlarged EU is that it will not be able to function rapidly and effectively in an ever-changing pan-European economic environment." It finds "the idea of letting a group of countries press ahead with integration -- the way it happened with the EU's Economic and Monetary Union and with the abolition of internal EU passport controls -- [to be] a realistic one."
The paper's editorial goes on to urge "the development of a more or less stable [rapid-integration] core, consisting of the six [EU] founding member states (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) -- plus Portugal, Spain and Finland." It says this core group "will naturally come to function as the 'power center' of the future EU."
The editorial warns, however, that the creation of an inner EU core group -- or "club," as it also calls it -- would lead, in its words, "inevitably to the formation of an 'inner federal state.'" And that, it says, would "violate the founding principles of the EU, which stipulate member-states' unanimous accord on important common problems." It adds: "Divisions [within the EU] must not be used to promote particular political or economic ideas."
(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)