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Western Press Review: Middle East, Chechnya

Prague, 12 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Today's editorial pages in the Western press continue to focus on the prospects for Middle East peace. Attention is also given to Moscow's continuing brutal campaign in Chechnya and Western policy towards Russia, as well as assorted other topics.


Limor Livnat, a Likud party member in the Israeli parliament, gives the conservative view that Israel should not make too many concessions during the peace talks. In a commentary for the New York Times today, he writes: "At the current summit, Israel is being called upon to concede its vital strategic buffer, especially in the Jordan Valley, and to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank, precisely at a time when the Western alliance has failed to maintain the monitoring of Iraq, which is only 250 miles to the east and has engaged Israel in four wars."

Livnat asks what Israel is expected to gain in exchange for these concessions. In his view, nothing good: "What security protections will Israel receive in return? Its 'compensation' will be billions of dollars in American military aid, which will only leave Israel more dependent on the United States than ever, and more beholden to the wishes of the White House and Congress."


The Los Angeles Times, in its editorial, urges the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to come to a deal. But the paper notes that both leaders may be crippled by their lack of a strong mandate from their own people. In its words: "[Yasser] Arafat, heading a corrupt and inefficient administration, may command less support now than ever in his long career. [Ehud] Barak, though handily elected prime minister little more than a year ago, now finds himself trailing even the discredited former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in opinion polls among Israelis. Meanwhile, his always shaky coalition government has fallen apart, leaving him with only a minority base in parliament, where on Monday he survived a no-confidence vote."

But the paper says there is still hope for the talks: "Barak, however, points to polls showing that a majority of Israelis favor the Camp David summit and still support making compromises form peace. That, he says, is his true mandate. Barak has said all along that peace requires mutual concessions. Those two words remain the key to successful peacemaking."


Turning to Russia, Britain's Guardian daily focuses on President Vladimir Putin, calling him a leader of "two faces," who is attempting to be a tsar to his people, while presenting himself as a free-market democrat to the outside world. The newspaper writes: "Mr. Putin's canny message to the outside world is that his post-Yeltsin Russia will be a stable, business-friendly democracy, committed to open markets, lower taxes and state sector reform; a Russia which the West would do well to engage through trade, aid, investment and common-sense realpolitik. It is in fact the message he knows the West badly wants to hear. How else to explain," the paper asks, "[the West's] silence over still unchecked atrocities in Chechnya, and the EU's sickening, cynical decision this week to resume 90 million dollars' worth of suspended Russian aid?"


The Washington Post also takes the West to task for choosing to ignore Russia's brutal war in Chechnya. In an editorial titled "An Unobserved War," the paper remarks: "Not much notice is paid in the West these days to the war in Chechnya. This is not, as you might think, because the war is over, although Russian officials have declared victory on any number of occasions. It is rather because the facts of the war are inconvenient. Inconvenient for Russia's leaders, who have done everything possible to keep reporters and aid workers from observing the misery there, and inconvenient for U.S. and European leaders, who want to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin."

The Post notes that U.S. President Bill Clinton often has spoken out eloquently against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, though he remains far more reticent on Chechnya. But the newspaper saves its harshest criticism for European leaders and what it calls the "fawning friendship German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has bestowed on Mr. Putin."

Like the Guardian, the Post wants to know why the EU has decided to resume its program of Russian aid -- originally suspended because of Moscow's actions in the Chechen war. "What's changed since then?" the editorial asks. "The Chechen capital Grozny is still in ruins, the bombing continues, the Russians have yet to credibly investigate or punish a single case of torture. But the war is no longer on television."

The paper appeals to leaders of the world's leading industrialized countries, who will meet with Putin at their upcoming annual summit in Japan, to "express forceful and public disapproval of Russia's abuses. ... If they smile and shake hands as if all is well," the paper concludes, "they will highlight their own hypocrisy while betraying the hapless Chechens and the few Russian human rights activists campaign in their behalf."


Norway's Aftenposten stays with the Russia theme, focusing on last week's meeting of the group known as the "Shanghai Forum," which brings together China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Aftenposten's editor, Per Egil Hegge, notes in his commentary: "It emerged at the summit that when [Russian] President Putin talked of his plans for a strong Russia, he clearly echoed Catherine the Great and her wars against the Ottoman Turks in the 1700s. He emphasized the need to oppose what he called militant Islamic terrorists, and he tried to represent Russia as a fighter for the interests of the West as well: as a bulwark against Islam."

Aftenposten says Putin's words aim to drive Central Asian countries back into Moscow's embrace, while cementing ties with China -- which is fighting its own battle against Muslim separatists in the province of Xinjiang.


The topic of ethnic division makes an appearance on the editorial pages of today's International Herald Tribune. Philip Bowring uses the current crisis in the Pacific island nation of Fiji -- which has pitted ethnic Indian inhabitants against ethnic Fijians -- as a springboard to ponder broader questions. Among the questions he asks: Are feuding ethnic groups not better off divided rather than forced to co-exist in one society? And barring that, should certain minorities or majorities be ensured preferential treatment as a way of stabilizing a given society? As Bowring points out: "The stark fact is that neither the international community nor the West nor anyone else has a consistent policy on these issues."

"In theory, democracy and non-discrimination should be preferred," he writes. "But reality is different. Western advocates of democracy need to remember that in their societies the past 40 years have seen numerous efforts, especially in the United States, to offer wholesale discrimination in favor of minorities, not all of whom were disadvantaged. The alternative may be division."

Bowring also points out that in some cases, the international community has supported division, while in others it has rejected it -- sometimes with little apparent logic: "The Kosovars may well have been worthy of NATO protection from Serbian nationalism and ethnic cleansing. But in practice the West has created a separate state there just as it underwrote the secession of Croatia and Slovenia and in 1948, using the UN as its agency, divided Palestine to create a state of Israel. More usually there is less support for separatism," says Bowring, noting the "oppression of Tibetans, Kurds and others with reasonable claims to political independence."

He cautions that "those who make mantras of democracy and anti-racism forget how difficult it is to balance ethnic diversity with democracy, equality and liberty."

(Anthony Georgieff contributed to this report.)