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Western Press Review: Evaluating The Mideast Peace Talks

Prague, 11 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Middle East peace process takes center stage on editorial pages across Europe and North America today, as U.S. President Bill Clinton prepares to open a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat later today. There is also some comment on the EU and on the anniversary of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia.


In a commentary titled, "Chief Surgeon Must End the Bloodshed," famed Israeli writer Amos Oz draws a parallel between the choices Barak must make and those taken by Israel's first leader, David Ben Gurion at two key moments, in 1947 and 1948. Oz writes in Britain's The Guardian today, "There is a fascinating resemblance between these days and the crucial moments of the birth of the Israeli nation: November 1947, when the Jewish people decided to accept the UN partition plan for Palestine, and May 1948 -- Israel's declaration of independence by David Ben Gurion."

Oz notes that: "The circumstances of Israel/Palestine 2000 are very different from those of 1947-48: the risks are different and so are the horizons. Yet the magnitude of the decisions, the vision and the courage they call for, are similar."

Oz recalls that in 1947, Ben Gurion's decision to accept the UN partition plan meant the Jews had to forfeit their holiest places. It evoked "an outcry from the hawkish Jewish opposition of the time," Oz notes. Ben Gurion's decision to announce Israeli independence half a year later passed by a margin of only one vote. "This time," Oz writes, "the opposition was not militant or hawkish, as in November of the previous year, but rather terrified and defeatist, unaware of the unique historic opportunity, playing for time and seeking to postpone the moment of truth."

Oz says that judging by Barak's conduct so far, "he has the guts to face both these challenges." But, he adds, much will depend on the conduct of ordinary Israelis. He makes this appeal: "The question, however, is not just one of his personal and political courage, but also of the energy of the doves in Israel to support him while some of his more hawkish or opportunistic partners are defecting. The doves must support Ehud Barak now, not just by crossing their fingers for him, but by taking to the streets, and promptly. It will be sad and dangerous if, as in the days of [former prime ministers] Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the hawkish right wing control the streets, while the silent majority sit in their armchairs."


The Financial Times, in its editorial, is skeptical about the outcome of the summit: "In a sense, all three summiteers are lame ducks (eds: at the end of their political terms). This status gives Mr. Clinton more time and inclination to try to reach a settlement but also less leverage. His newfound willingness to plunge into Middle East diplomacy without any prior assurance of success may be laudable but -- as illustrated by his abortive summit meeting in March with the late President Assad of Syria -- it may also be ineffective."

This is not the only problem, the paper adds: "More debilitating is the political weakness of both Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat in their respective camps. The Israeli prime minister's coalition is crumbling because the nationalist majority cannot support his bid to make peace with the Palestinians. ... And Israel's recent total withdrawal from South Lebanon makes it harder for Mr. Arafat to compromise. The lesson of Lebanon, for many Palestinians, is that armed resistance eventually pays off. It is therefore unlikely that Camp David can work its magic to produce a full agreement at this week's meeting," the paper concludes.


The New York Times leaves more room for hope in its editorial, noting that: "Under recent changes in Israeli election law, prime ministers are directly elected, making them less dependent on parliament's shifting coalitions. Mr. Barak heads to Camp David rightly determined to rise above party politics and work hard for an honorable peace." Ultimately, the newspaper argues, it is up to leaders to make the tough decisions, and that is what Barak and Arafat must do -- with Clinton's full support. In the editorial's words: "President Clinton summoned Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat to Camp David because lower-level negotiations had reached a dangerous impasse. The unresolved questions are the hard ones, and only the top leaders have the authority to make the necessary compromises. Mr. Clinton should be ready to back them up with American guarantees, promises of financial aid and even draft diplomatic language. But this summit meeting can succeed only if the two leaders themselves are ready to deal."


Denmark's Politiken newspaper sees President Clinton's main task in forcing the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to shed flowery rhetoric and settle for a workable solution: "President Bill Clinton's most important task is to persuade both parties of the political realities behind all the myths and symbols that hamper the constructive debate. For it is a significant side effect of the Middle Eastern peace process that what both the Israelis and the Palestinians must get rids of the myths and legends if they are to go forward on the road to permanent peace. However," the Danish paper continues, "so long as Arafat talks of the Palestinian's innate right to return to Israel and Barak considers Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jews, there can be no real compromise. The Camp David summit may become a historic meeting to set off a comprehensive peace process in the Middle East. Still, if the Palestinians and the Israelis fail to understand where mythology ends and real life begins, they will have to pay with their blood."


Turning to European topics, the International Herald Tribune today carries a commentary on the EU by Lord Howell of Guildford, the chief opposition spokesman on foreign affairs in the British House of Lords. Howell takes issue with the recent speeches by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and French President Jacques Chirac advocating closer ties among a core of EU countries. Taking his cue from the corporate world, Howell argues that the push for greater integration among EU states at all levels is counterproductive and un-modern.

He writes: "The merging of nation-states, like corporations, and the building of bigger and bigger blocs and institutions to preside over them can sometimes mean advance. But it can also mean heavy centralization and stagnation. In the modern milieu of webs and electronic networks, ideas of bloc building and centralization can seem particularly inappropriate. In the corporate world, it has long been debatable whether mergers and ever bigger enterprises are the most efficient and profitable way forward."

Howell calls for a more flexible approach: "What the builders of modern Europe need is the courage to show that there are different models for European advance, and that closer integration is not necessarily the best one. ... A much more flexible set of European arrangements, letting some groups of countries go in one direction on issues such as defense, crime control, regulatory disciplines and technical cooperation, and some in another direction, may be a far more modern way of organizing Europe than old-fashioned bloc-building, with the standardization and central pressures for conformity that accompany it."

Howell says this method would work especially well for the EU's planned eastward expansion. "The enlargement process," he says, "is mired down at the moment because the applicant countries are being asked to conform too rigidly to the standardizing house rules of the existing EU bloc."


Marking the five-year anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men at Srebrenica, commentator Wieland Schneider looks at the lessons of what he calls "the worst war crime in Europe since World War Two." He writes in Austria's Die Presse: "The culprits for the massacre were quickly identified: the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, their military leader Ratko Mladic, and the man who controlled everything from the background -- the dictator in Belgrade, Slobodan Milosevic."

Just a few months later, Milosevic was welcomed by Washington, Paris and London to negotiate the Dayton peace accord. Schneider writes: "By making a deal with the Serbian dictator, the international community -- despite warnings -- neglected to defuse another powderkeg in the Balkans: Kosovo. And that, too, exploded."

Now Milosevic has manipulated Yugoslavia's constitution to ensure he will stay in power even longer, and in the process has dramatically deepened the rift between the country's remaining republics, Serbia and the Western-leaning Montenegro. Schneider sees Montenegro as the next potential explosion, as he notes: "Representatives of Montenegro have already described the federation with Serbia as dead. Belgrade, however, has made it amply clear that it will not accept the splintering off of Montenegro."

Schneider is not optimistic that the West will act to prevent yet another Milosevic-sponsored Balkan war. "The first reaction of the West to the new tensions was telling," he writes. "A U.S. State Department spokesman offered vague threats against Belgrade. At the same time, he cautioned Podgorica to hold back and to take any 'unilateral steps.'" A NATO diplomat admitted that there is no "Plan B" for Montenegro -- just as, Schneider notes scornfully, there was no plan to prevent conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, and finally Kosovo.

"Murder in the Balkans," the commentator concludes, "could now enter a new round, and the West will -- after a rude awakening -- fall into the same Catch-22 (eds: unwinnable situation) as before: either it watches the deaths passively and makes itself responsible for neglecting the victims, or it takes an active part and bloodies its own hands. The ruler in Belgrade, meanwhile, can take his time planning his chess moves for the next few years."


Finally, on a lighter note, The Scotsman ponders the revival of Viking lore across northern Europe. "Is there a little Viking in all of us?" the paper asks in an editorial today. Scientists, it notes, are searching for a chromosome in modern Britons, in an attempt to prove their Viking heritage. This has been accompanied by growing interest among the public in all things Viking over the past few years. The paper notes: "Festivals such as Up-Helly-Aa in Shetland feature fishermen, accountants and shop assistants dressing up in helmets and brandishing halberds (eds: tall hatchets) to celebrate what they see as their Viking roots. But is this macho display anything to be proud of?" the paper asks.

In the opinion of its editors, the answer is decidedly no: "Whatever else the revisionists and romantics say, the Vikings -- as a matter of historical record -- slaughtered defenseless monks and excelled at sneaking up on defenseless villages at night. Norse literature, too, is one unrelieved saga of tedious treachery and murder, with none of the love of nature evinced in Celtic writings centuries before. So, what advice to the reader who finds a Viking in his, or indeed her, genes? Handle with care. And hope it is tempered by something gentler, like a Huguenot or a Thai."

(Susan Caskie in Prague and Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen in Prague contributed to this report.)