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Western Press Review: Glumness Over Mideast Peace Prospects

Prague, 13 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary is largely devoted to the Middle East, where events yesterday marked a violent turning-point in the area's history.

After 15 days of murderous clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, two Israeli soldier were lynched in the West Bank town of Ramallah. That act triggered heavy Israeli reprisals -- and a move toward a national-unity government by Prime Minister Ehud Barak which could mark the end of the peace process begun in Oslo seven years ago. At the same time, an apparent terrorist action against a U.S. Navy destroyer off the coast of Yemen killed at least six sailors and wounded many more.

Commentators assess the import of the day's events, with most of them quite glum about future peace prospects. Here is a representative sample.


The Irish Times writes that "yesterday's events were a disaster waiting to happen. [After] the escalation of tension and confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis in recent weeks, which has left nearly 100 people dead, popular feeling on both sides has been stoked up to fever pitch," the paper says. That makes "it more and more difficult for political leaderships to exert control or calm passions down. The horrifying death of the Israeli soldiers in Ramallah -- at the hands of a crowd of Palestinian youths returning from a funeral of a young man killed in the violence -- was responded to by the Israeli military in a classically peremptory manner."

The editorial warns that "the collapse of the peace process would have grave consequences indeed for the region. It could lead to all-out battles between the Israeli military and Palestinians and the eruption of terrorist attacks in the occupied territories, within Israel and in Lebanon." And the effects may also be felt, the editorial says, on issues "such as Iraq's isolation -- highlighted by the fact that the [U.S.] warship attacked in Aden was en route to enforce sanctions -- and support for fundamentalist movements from Iran."

Finally, the paper notes, "oil security and pricing [could] also be endangered. It would be hard to predict how international markets would respond. All this underlines how pressing and urgent it is for the international community to contain these events. "


Two British papers agree that the violence in the Middle East may now easily get out of hand. The Times writes that the area "is on the brink of serious military conflict [and sees only] three plausible options at hand, none of which is appealing. The least bad possibility," the paper's editorial says, "is that Israelis and Palestinians manage to keep out of each other's way for long enough to allow time and talking to reduce tension. [The] peace process would be placed in permafrost but political dialogue would not be entirely abandoned. [Three] weeks ago such an outcome would have been deemed a disaster. It would now be considered something of a triumph."

"The other options," the paper says, "are considerably more dangerous. Israelis and Palestinians might fight a short war with many casualties. In strictly military terms, this would not be much of a contest. Israel could send its tanks back into territory that it recently relinquished. [But] the worst of all worlds," the editorial says, "would be a much broader military conflict. There are sound reasons why Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria would not want to throw their armies across the Israeli border. Iran and Iraq, by contrast, are unpredictable rogue states. Such a clash may be unlikely but the mood on the street means that it cannot be discounted."


The Financial Times writes: "There was always the awful possibility that two weeks of stupid, vicious attacks by Israelis and Palestinians on each other would turn into something much worse. On Thursday it did." Its editorial goes on to say: "In the 17 years since the last all-out Arab-Israeli war, the world has tended to forget why the Middle East remains so combustible. But the past fortnight has shown the explosive ingredients are still all there."

"First and foremost," the editorial says, "is the sheer bitterness of the conflict. The battle lines are now back on ethnic and religious grounds rather than political ones. Israeli Arabs have sided with Palestinians against their government. Rabbis have been killed, mosques attacked. Any trust between even left-wing Israelis and moderate Palestinians has been snapped."


In France, commentators are no less pessimistic about future peace prospects. In the national daily Liberation, an editorial signed by managing editor Jacques Amalric says: "When there is violent confrontation on top of a volcano, the protagonists in the combat risk falling in. Is that," he asks, "what happened yesterday -- one of the blackest days ever in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation? There's little doubt about it," Amalric says, "with so much hate increasingly a part of the conflict."

The editorial -- quoting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan -- calls the lynching of the Israeli soldiers in Ramallah "ignoble." But it also say that the Palestinian police who were unable, or unwilling, to prevent the murder "worked well for the cause of war." The result, Amalric concludes, is that "efforts now to renew the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue are little more than pious hopes."


The large-circulation French provincial daily L'Est-Republicain says that "not since the signing of the [1993] Oslo accords has war [in the Middle East] been so close. All the energy that has been exerted to help Israelis and Palestinians to co-exist peaceably," it goes on, "has been to no avail." The paper adds: "If skepticism is winning today, it's because no-one knows any more how to reap the fruits of past efforts."

The paper says further: "To prevent the irreparable, Barak and [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat must talk sense to one another. But Barak is in an unstable domestic political situation and far from the master of events. As for Arafat, he seems just plain worn out."


The Spanish daily El Mundo calls yesterday's events the result of an "infernal spiral [that has] led Israelis and Palestinians to the edge of a new war that could eventually involve Lebanon and Syria. We know what happened [during the Middle East war of] 1973," it goes on. "Oil prices exploded and Western economies entered into a crisis that lasted more than 10 years."

"The U.S. and Europe have good reasons to tremble," El Mundo adds. "Yesterday's attack against a U.S. ship in Yemen could be the prelude to a terrorist escalation if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsens. But," it argues, "if there is a war, the biggest harm will be done to the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. Israel would again become a militarized, internationally isolated country able to survive only through the intimidation of its arms. The Palestinians would be probably devastated by a stronger enemy and pushed to a new Diaspora."


Also in Spain, El Pais writes: "After a certain limit has been crossed, no one can be sure of controlling an explosive situation. Palestinian frustration with a situation with only bad prospects has reached a critical point, and the same is happening with the internal Israeli situation."

The paper continues: "The confluence of the two has triggered a crisis that is again leading the Middle East toward ruin. It is crucial to stop the conflict now," it says. "Arafat has to make an effort to calm down his people, while the more powerful Israel has [an] obligation to give [the Palestinians] once and for all a proper country of their own."


A commentary in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung by Thorsten Schmitz argues that "Barak's future hangs on the thread of the peace process." Writing from Tel Aviv, he says: "It is war in Israel -- and Ehud Barak is the loneliest prime minister in the world. Abandoned by five coalition parties and nine ministers, he had with great trouble been keeping himself above water -- until this round of violence. The fighting," Schmitz says, "is destroying both seven years of work for peace, plus Barak's mission of completing the peace process."

Schmitz concludes: "Shocked by the lynching of the two soldiers and attacks by Arab Israelis on Jewish holy sites, Israelis are now completing a move to the right. [Much] suggests that soon a hard-line Likud government will be determining the fate of the country."


Across the Atlantic, the New York Times writes today of "days of rage in the Middle East." Its editorial, too, says that "there seems little chance that the peace talks that made so much progress at Camp David in July can be resumed any time soon. Even restoring tranquillity will be hard," it says. "As angry as he appeared Thursday, Barak seems prepared to do what he can to halt the bloodshed. Arafat has shown no such inclination in recent days, even though everyone knows that he can break the cycle of conflict."


The New York Times' foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman says that "the roots of this latest violent outburst can be traced directly back to President [Bill] Clinton's press conference after the breakdown of the Camp David summit meeting. At that time," Friedman recalls, "Clinton pointedly, deliberately -- and rightly -- stated that [Barak] had offered unprecedented compromises at the summit meeting -- more than 90 percent of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, a partial resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and Palestinian sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem -- and that Arafat had not responded in kind, or at all."

Friedman then argues: "Palestinians were shocked by Clinton's assessment. For the first time in a long time, Arafat no longer had the moral high ground. He [and other Arab leaders were] stunned and unprepared for the seriousness of Barak's offer and the bluntness of Clinton's assessment. Other world leaders told Arafat the same thing: Barak deserves a serious counter-offer."

The commentary continues: "Arafat had a dilemma: Make some compromises, build on Barak's opening bid and try to get it closer to 100 percent -- and regain the moral high ground that way -- or provoke the Israelis into brutalizing Palestinians again, and regain the moral high ground that way. Arafat," Friedman says, "chose the latter. [Instead] of responding to Barak's peace-making overture, he and his boys responded to Ariel Sharon's peace-destroying provocation. In short, the Palestinians could not deal with Barak, so they had to turn him into Sharon."


In the Washington Post today, a commentary by analyst Peter Roman also sees the origins of the present crisis in the Camp David meeting. Rodman writes: "Expectations were raised [at Camp David] that a final settlement of all the core issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict --Jerusalem, sovereignty, final borders, refugees, water, etc. -- was within reach. The higher the expectations, the deeper the disappointment."

The commentary continues: "Barak -- pulled at Camp David far beyond the Israeli domestic consensus -- came home to a political crisis that has not yet played itself out. Due to concessions he was seen to make at Camp David -- and even before the current explosion -- his government was in trouble. It is not likely to survive in its present form."

"The question has to be asked," Rodman continues. "What was in the minds of U.S. mediators when they convened the Camp David summit? Did they really think the Jerusalem question would be solved in a week? The central issues were nowhere near ready for compromise. [The] pattern of the U.S.-led diplomacy for the past year and more has been of wildly unrealistic deadlines, including the [one] set at the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting of September 1999, for a complete and final peace agreement in one year's time."

Rodman then sums up: "The logical impenetrability of the administration's calculations at Camp David inevitably fuels speculation about the motivation for convening it. Was President Clinton hungry for a 'legacy?' Of all the reasons to rush the negotiations artificially, this has to be one of the least persuasive. [To] be fair," he goes on, "the explosion now is far worse than anyone could have expected. But Arab-Israeli diplomacy will take months, even years, to recover from this. [At] this point, Camp David looks like one of the great diplomatic miscalculations of recent history."

(RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego contributed to this report.)