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Western Press Review: Israeli Government's Troubles; Russia's Oligarchs

Prague, 1 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The major subject of Western press commentary today is the growing troubles of Israel's ruling left-coalition government. Yesterday, the Knesset (parliament) unexpectedly rejected former Labor premier -- and Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- Shimon Peres as the country's next president, choosing instead a relatively unknown right-wing politician. Analysts probe the significance of Peres' defeat and the problems now faced by Prime Minister Ehud Barak after his unsuccessful summit talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. There are also some comments on Russia's influential business tycoons, known as "oligarchs."


"What a day for Ehud Barak!" exclaims Michael Birnbaum in a commentary for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "He writes: "After the Israeli parliament's shocking rejection yesterday of his party's candidate for the vacant presidency, deputies let the embattled prime minister off the hook when he survived a vote of no-confidence the same day. But," Birnbaum adds, "Barak must be in deep shock after the victory of an unknown over veteran peacemaker Shimon Peres, probably even unable to appreciate the fact that he is still prime minister."

As for Peres -- known in Israel, the commentator notes, as "the eternal loser" because of previous political setbacks -- Birnbaum says he lost "against a relative political nobody, Moshe Katsav of the right-wing opposition Likud party." He argues that Peres' defeat was due to what he calls "concessions Barak's government had been ready to make to Yasser Arafat."

The commentary goes on: "Despite winning the no-confidence vote, Barak is well aware that deputies are out to end his coalition government. [Now,] Barak is left to ponder the rubble of his attempts to bring peace to the Middle East. He was able only to achieve one of his election promises: the withdraw of Israel's army from southern Lebanon. The rest," Birnbaum concludes, "is a shambles. Negotiations with Syria have collapsed, and Barak returned from the Camp David summit after a fortnight empty-handed. His coalition government is on its last legs."


In France's influential provincial newspaper Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace, Christiane Vettu writes of Peres: "At 76, he had hoped to cap his political career [by being elected president], a mostly ceremonial post that would have nonetheless have made him the head of a country rarely as divided as it is today."

She continues: "But Peres is not greatly loved in his own country. He is an eternal political loser, most importantly against [former Likud leader] Benjamin Netanyahu. Now, he sadly leaves the political scene, having lost this time to a politician of no great caliber." Like Birnbaum, Vettu believes that Peres at least was in large part the victim of Barak's unrealized efforts to find a solution to the country's long-time problems with the Palestinians.

"So," the commentator says, "Peres' defeat is a heavy blow for Barak, signaling his inability to retain a majority coalition. Barak has effectively been abandoned by his own country," she concludes. "Suspected -- indeed openly accused -- of having sided with the enemy, Barak is hardly likely to assemble a new coalition by the end of this summer." She concludes: "Only early elections could change things. They would force each and every Israeli to accept his or her responsibility. So, why not?" she asks.


In an editorial, the New York Times is a bit more optimistic about Barak's immediate prospects. The paper writes: "Israel's parliament [has] made clear its uneasiness over peace talks with the Palestinians. But [Barak] remains in office with a chance to revive the compromises discussed at the failed Camp David summit meetings if Palestinian leader Arafat shows more flexibility on Jerusalem." It adds: "Polls show that Israeli voters are far more willing than their elected representatives to support reasonable compromises as the price of a durable peace."

The editorial says that "the parliament's biggest surprise was Moshe Katsav's upset of Peres." It notes that Batsav, "born in Iran, [is] Israel's first president with non-European origins, a welcome advance for a group long excluded from the top ranks of the Israeli political establishment. Of more immediate political significance," the paper argues, "were two failed votes of no confidence in the Barak government."

"Although Barak survived," the paper says, "he mustered only about 50 votes in his favor from the 120-seat parliament, a disturbingly low level of support, and not nearly enough to pass crucial legislation. He will have to use the three-month parliamentary recess that begins later this week to reorganize his cabinet and rebuild his coalition.

Barak's challenge," it sums up, "is to convert the clear support for peace in the country into a stable parliamentary majority."


The Wall Street Journal Europe says that Peres' "defeat should not have come as a surprise." In an editorial, the paper explains: "Mr. Peres has always been a darling in the West, but his standing among the Israeli electorate and its political class was never as sure. He failed to win the prime ministership on four separate occasions, losing even in 1996 when he was heir-designate to the martyred Yitzhak Rabin. [Barak later] ousted him as leader of the Labor Party. And he is a pariah to many Israelis, who blame him for compromising national security in a utopian bid for Middle East harmony."

The editorial continues: "Now this latest setback. The Israeli presidency is supposed to be a purely ceremonial post -- a symbol of Israeli unity -- though its last occupant, Ezer Weizman, used it as a bully pulpit to advocate the peace process before being forced to step down on corruption charges." The Journal adds: "But while the plain-spoken Mr. Weizman was affectionately regarded by most Israelis, his decision to take such a public stand on such a divisive issue did not sit well. The last thing an already deeply polarized Israeli public needed was a polarizing president. And Mr. Peres, despite last-minute protestations that he would 'deal mainly in unifying the nation,' is nothing if not a polarizer."

"Finally," concludes the paper, "the results of the presidential election are yet another blow to the political elite represented by the likes of Mr. Barak and Mr. Peres, which has been a powerful influence on Israeli politics even during periods when Likud led governing coalitions. [Katsev,] the new president, is a religiously observant Sephardic Jew with a folksy manner and conservative instincts. He may be, as some charge, [an ordinary] politician. But given the risks Israel's current crop of leaders have exposed the country to, that may be the safer alternative for now."


The Wall Street Journal Europe today also runs a commentary on Russia's influential business tycoons by Alexei Bayer, a New York-based economic analyst. He writes: "Russia's oligarchs have a public-relations problem. Until recently, they were well-connected and powerful Masters of the Universe. Today, reeling from a government assault, they have suddenly become poor little rich guys, without a friend in the world." He goes to say that, in a meeting with many of the oligarchs last Friday (July 27), Russia President Vladimir Putin "offered [them] no solace. [He] was firm in maintaining that he will not restrain prosecutors that are looking into their business activity. It is these prosecutions that have the formerly powerful tycoons on the run."

The commentator then says: "The West, which would have leapt to [the oligarchs'] defense a few years ago, now wants nothing to do with them. Foreign investors still remember the nasty way Russian banks defaulted on their international bonds and derivatives contracts. [There's hardly a single foreign businessman] who has done business in Russia and has no horror story to tell."

"Yet," Bayer argues, "for all their faults, the oligarchs are extraordinary individuals. They've been able to put together enormous fortunes under extremely difficult conditions. A better economic system in Russia would have put them to work and benefited from their energy, ambition, desire to succeed, money-making skills, and -- yes -- greed."

He goes on: "The United States discovered in the early 1980s that 'greed is good.' The high-tech revolution of the 1980s and 1990s was, if anything, built by highly ambitious men and women, driven by the profit motive -- in a word, greedy. The only difference," he adds, "is that in the United States and other parts of the West, the economic system channels ambition and greed to productive uses -- building companies, creating jobs, inventing new products. In Russia, on the contrary, the system is geared towards underhanded practices, concealment and theft. Unless the system changes," Bayer sums up, "a future wave of oligarchs will be no better than the present one, only less conspicuous."


The Irish Times also comments on Putin's meeting with the oligarchs last week. It writes in an editorial: "Putin promised in the course of his election campaign that he would deal with the oligarchy. His meeting [Friday] with senior businessmen ended in a commitment that the state would not overturn the results of the highly criticized privatization program introduced in the early 1990s by the deputy prime minister, Mr. Anatoly Chubais."

The paper then says: "What [Putin] was telling the oligarchs was that, while their money was safe, their era as the chief manipulators of Russian politics was ending. There were, however, some notable absentees at the Kremlin meeting." the editorial notes. "Mr. Boris Berezovsky -- who, with [former President Boris] Yeltsin's daughter, Ms. Tatyana Dyachenko, heads one of the most influential groups within the Kremlin -- was not invited. Neither was Mr. Roman Abramovich, the oil billionaire, who is one of Mr. Berezovsky's close associates. Mr. Vladimir Gusinsky, whose media empire opposes the Putin administration, was in Spain, having survived the almost undivided attention of the tax police and a week in prison without trial."

The paper concludes: "Mr. Putin had little option but to let the results of the Chubais privatization stand. To undo all that has been done would have been virtually impossible. The wealth of the oligarchs will, therefore, remain regardless of its provenance and Mr. Putin will attempt to keep Russia on the road to financial recovery."