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Western Press Review: Middle East Turmoil And Its Consequences

Prague, 16 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The turmoil in the Middle East, the hopes for peace there, the terrorist activity associated with the situation, and the impact of it all on the world economy -- all these make up the subjects currently preoccupying the Western press.


In an editorial, the New York Times today looks at the prospects for the summit arranged at an Egyptian Red Sea resort. It says: "Monday's emergency summit meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, will have to overcome long odds even to achieve agreement on restoring calm in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. More than two weeks of bloodshed have hardened attitudes and pulverized trust between Israelis and Palestinians," the paper adds. "It is hard at this point to imagine going further and resuming progress toward a negotiated peace. But the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, will be meeting, along with [U.S] President [Bill] Clinton and other international figures, is cause for muted optimism."

"All of the participants," the editorial continues, "have a strong interest in halting the violence. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, deserves credit for helping to bring the parties together. Though a relatively new factor in Mideast diplomacy, he has thus far been a constructive one. The Palestinians hope that he might be sympathetic to their concerns. But Israel is also open to greater UN involvement.

"Barak," the paper says, "comes to the meeting knowing that Israel's parliament, when it convenes at the end of this month, is likely to press for new elections or a new coalition including hawkish right-wing parties. Barak has already invited Ariel Sharon, the Likud leader, into a temporary unity government. Sharon has so far declined. A credible agreement on halting the violence would give Barak more freedom of action over the next two weeks." Discussing Arafat's role, the paper says he "showed some flexibility by consenting to go to Egypt without prior agreement to his demand for an international commission of inquiry on the violence, although he is expected to raise that demand again at Sharm el-Sheikh. Arafat's commitment to peace seems uncertain, and many Israelis now suspect that he would rather proclaim Palestinian statehood than negotiate it, inviting further clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army. The summit meeting is likely to turn on his willingness to bring hostilities to an end.

Finally, The New York Times discusses the role of the meeting's host, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president. It writes: "[He] knows that continued violence could destabilize Egypt. He also understands that Cairo's stature in the Arab world largely depends on expanding the peacemaking with Israel begun by Anwar Sadat two decades ago. His peacemaking efforts have been aided by King Abdullah of Jordan, who has been quick to assume the enlightened role played by his father, King Hussein."


The implications of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit are also the subject of a news analysis today in the Financial Times entitled "Success of summit is far from assured." In it, Roula Khalaf writes: "[U.S.] President Bill Clinton, who had hoped to crown his presidency with a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement, is [now] reduced to struggling to end a violent crisis whose consequences reach far beyond Israel and Palestine to threaten U.S. interests in the region as a whole."

She says the stakes for Israelis and Palestinians -- and indeed for the United States -- have never been higher: "Opponents of peace are gaining ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as in the rest of the region. Mr. Barak," she adds, "has been holding negotiations with the right-wing Likud party. The failure of the summit could lead him to include in his government Ariel Sharon, the Likud leader, a move which would shatter any hope of a revival of peace negotiations.

"Mr. Arafat," Khalaf continues, "appears to be playing a similar game and threatening to release the pressure on the Islamist movement Hamas, held responsible for suicide bomb attacks in Israel. With the Arab world angered by perceived U.S. support for Israel, clashes between Israelis and Palestinians are leading Western officials to warn of a resurgence of attacks by extremists against U.S. targets and pro-Western Arab governments."

The analysis goes on: "There also are concerns that the conflict would complicate U.S. attempts to lower oil prices, despite Saudi assurances that OPEC producers were ready to further oil production cuts. Moreover," it adds, "unless the lid is put on the violence in the next few days, a rare meeting of Arab leaders planned in Cairo next weekend may take strong measures against Israel, undermining chances of a revival of peace negotiations."


In a commentary in Vienna's Die Presse, Andreas Schwarz also writes about President Clinton's dashed hopes of Middle East peace. He says: "In these autumn days Bill Clinton had originally planned to preside over the ceremonial signing of a Mideast accord, which would help him go down in history as a peacemaker. But alas, his all too hastily called Camp David Summit in the summer failed, and for the last three weeks violence has ruled in Israel and the Palestinian territories. So," Schwarz concludes, "Clinton is travelling instead on a quite different mission, namely to save whatever is left to save from the Mideast peace process, which the United States has guided for the last decades. The outlook is sad, and the U.S. mediation role is limited."


An editorial today in the Spanish daily El Pais also deals with Sharm el-Sheikh, but looks at the pressures upon the main Mideastern players themselves. It says: "Arafat cannot afford any weak points in dealing with his Israeli interlocutor. He goes to Egypt under the enormous pressure of the number of [Palestinian] victims [of the recent violence]. Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other influential groups demand from him rancor and bitterness." The editorial continues: "The majority of Arab leaders are favorable to peace, but their lack of democratic legitimacy makes them vulnerable to wild, emotional anti-Israeli demonstrations in the streets. "

"What Barak is hoping for from the Palestinians in Sharm el-Sheikh," the paper goes on, "is security, an end of the confrontations, disarming of their most violent groups, re-incarceration of [extremist] leaders and punishment for those responsible of the lynching of his [Israeli] soldiers. In this uncertain [moment]," El Pais sums up, "the good news is that both decided to meet. But constructing real peace will have to be left for later And it will take a lot of time after the recent evaporation of the mutual confidence that was built up with so much effort."


In Denmark, the daily Politiken's editorial calls the Sharm el-Sheik meeting the last chance for both Barak and Arafat to revive the peace process that started in Oslo seven years ago. Politiken says: "In the past few days the Arab countries have stepped up the pressure on Arafat to make concessions as they fear a failure in Sharm el-Sheik will cause the current conflict to spiral out of control. Such a development would have a bearing on the whole Middle East, if not the whole world, " the paper writes. "Some Arab leaders fear that their own frustrated population will be 'inspired' by such a failure. Among other things, such a development may provoke a crisis in [Arab] relations with the United States and new rises in world oil prices."


Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, under the title of "Voodoo economics," Hans Barbier examines the impact of the Mideast crisis on the world economy. His commentary deals with how the threat of war in the region is perceived by the financial markets:

"Oil prices rocket, stock indexes plummet, positive economic trends turn sour, growth scenarios are trimmed. Commentators stir up a mood of imminent crisis. Yet," he goes on, "with all due respect to these swift and dramatic verdicts, some questions [that challenge this view] do arise. Are share prices really crashing in the gun-battles on the Gaza Strip, or is the hot air of hugely exaggerated market expectation simply escaping from inflated stock market quotations? Does the market not provide other causes for market turbulence and sharp falls in prices? "

Barbier continues: "Market sensitivity to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows just how aware all players, both political and economic, are of the extremely dependent relationship between politics and the market. It is no wonder that a conflict culminating in the outbreak of war sends shock waves through stock exchanges around the world. But," he goes on, "it is somewhat far-fetched to predict that global economic disaster will result from a conflict, which -- sad and tragic as it may be -- is still a regional one. The fact that oil prices rise when bullets are fired in 'Arabia' does not imply that Saudi oil supplies will dry up and leave the world in darkness."

(RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego and Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to our report)