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Western Press Review: Mideast Peace Talks, Turkey, Austria

Prague, 6 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's announcement by U.S. President Bill Clinton that he will convene a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat elicits opinion from U.S. newspapers today. European publications mainly focus on topics closer to home.


The New York Times, in an editorial today, says the summit "will usefully quicken the pace of Mideast peace negotiations two months ahead of the deadline both sides have set for a final agreement." The paper urges both leaders to act boldly, taking their inspiration from the symbolism of the meeting site, Camp David: "Like Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt when they gathered at Camp David at President Carter's invitation 22 years ago, Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat must summon the courage to make difficult compromises or risk losing a historic opportunity to end the half-century-old conflict."


The Washington Post, for its part, says a positive outcome from the summit is far from assured. In its words: "It is just possible that, if the two leaders are skillfully cajoled and pressed by Mr. Clinton, the summit could serve to defuse the short-term crisis. That will be hard enough. The larger goal," the paper continues, "a detailed agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all, is harder still. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is yet another 'framework' agreement setting forth general principles that would govern such a settlement--followed by more talks.

But the paper praises President Clinton for convening the meeting, saying: "Even so, Mr. Clinton is right to risk a summit. There are risks to inaction, too; better to keep talking than to resume fighting."

In another commentary devoted to the Middle East, the Washington Post focuses on the region's 3.5 million Palestinian refugees, a million of whom are in internationally administered camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank. Former assistant secretary of state Phyllis Oakley writes: "[Since they fall] under the 1947 United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Palestinian refugees have never been subject to the principles applying to other refugees. [All other refugees] come under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Sadako Ogata, the high commissioner since 1991, has often spoken of the three permanent solutions for refugee populations: Repatriation, or the return of refugees to their home -- the preferred solution and the most often used -- local integration, or settling refugees in the country where they first take refuge; and resettlement in a third country."

But the Palestinian refugees, Oakley points out, have been offered none of those options. She writes that the Lebanese government wants to see its Palestinian refugees leave the country and has no plans to integrate them. Likewise, Israel is not eager to see more Palestinians return to the Galilee.

Oakley calls for a multilateral meeting, in which many countries could discuss the issue -- especially those that have been traditionally open to immigration -- and eventually share the burden: "It is time for the United States to mobilize the international humanitarian community, including traditional resettlement countries such as Australia and Canada, the countries of the area, [and the UN agencies], in an informal meeting to see what might be possible. Everyone would have to do something. Israel, in this context, might become more willing to accept some returnees; Lebanon would be expected to grant some Palestinians citizenship and civil rights."


Turning to another conflict zone, today's Turkish Daily News carries a commentary by Turkish academic Mehmet Ali Birand, titled "Solutions for Aegean Problems." Birand, who is a participant in a non-governmental Turkish-Greek initiative aimed at resolving disputes between the two rival neighbors, writes: "Until now, Aegean issues were taken up only at a government-to-government level. Diplomats would talk to one another. Official circles would not want anyone else to tackle such issues. People who did not have official titles would be wary of speaking their minds and then being declared a "traitor" if their ideas ran counter to the official policy line."

But Birand notes that the situation is changing, and he argues that non-governmental experts and ordinary citizens have an important role to play in lowering tensions between Greece and Turkey. He details results of a recent meeting of Turkish and Greek academics and ex-diplomats, where he says all controversial issues dogging relations between the two states were discussed.

Birand says both sides agreed to the following principles: "All problems will first be taken up in bilateral talks which would have a predetermined duration. Then the agreements reached will be put on paper. On those issues on which no agreement could be reached, a 'covenant' will be jointly arranged and these issues will be taken to the International Court of Justice. The issue of the demilitarization of the Aegean islands will be taken up in the second stage and a solution will be sought. In the course of that process, the status quo will not be changed."

Biran acknowledges that these principles were worked out by a civilian initiative and therefore are not binding on the two governments. But he expresses the hope that it will make official negotiations easier, and he says the initiative has at least demonstrated that, in his words, "the Turks and the Greeks do not bicker all the time, that, to the contrary, they are able to reach an agreement even on the most sensitive issues."


The EU's ongoing conflict with member-country Austria remains a concern of editorial writers across Europe today. How France's presidency of the EU is likely to affect the dispute is discussed by several commentators, among them Stefan Ulrich of Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung. He writes: "The French EU presidency is in a delicate situation. On the one hand, Paris doesn't want to let anyone outdo it in firmness toward Vienna. On the other hand, France wants to successfully conclude the EU reforms necessary for enlargement. The two goals can easily conflict."

Ulrich says Austria has lost patience, and the right-wing forces in the coalition government are talking about blocking reforms unless the EU sanctions on Austria are lifted. A planned referendum will ask the people whether Austria should take "all suitable measures" to get the sanctions lifted.

"Paris," Ulrich continues, "can hardly treat this as an empty threat. As the union is now constructed, a single member can cripple it. For fundamental decisions such as changes to the treaty and acceptance of new members requires unanimity."

He warns: "If Vienna refuses to cooperate, there will be no EU reforms, no eastward enlargement, and no European crisis reaction in the Balkans or anywhere else. The EU's hands will be tied, and it will be unable to get free."


Jean-Claude Kiefer, writing in France's Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace, says Austria's decision to hold a referendum which could allow it to block future EU reforms, is "the worst of solutions." He says the move demonstrates that the conservative OVP, which runs the government, in coalition with the far-right Freedom Party founded by Joerg Haider, has "become the hostage of Haider's populists."

Kiefer says it also demonstrates that the Freedom Party, which has been losing ground in public opinion polls, "is transforming its traditional xenophobia into 'europhobia.'" Kiefer concludes by noting that the strategy could ultimately backfire on the domestic political scene, noting that according to the latest polls "more than 70 percent [of Austrians] want their country to belong to the European Union."


In the Austrian newspaper Die Presse, Wolfgang Boehm criticizes the planned referendum. He says Austria risks isolating itself entirely.

Boehm calls the move is "a renunciation of diplomacy and a turning toward political confrontation." He writes: "After Austria was unjustly isolated, it now threatens to isolate itself. Of all times, to choose the time when the united front of the EU 14 was beginning to crack, when only France, Belgium and Germany were still firmly behind the sanctions is counterproductive."

(Susan Caskie contributed to this report.)