Prague, 28 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary continues to focus largely on the Middle East, even though it is now uncertain if Israeli and Palestinian leaders will meet soon to discuss new U.S. peace proposals. The two sides cancelled a planned meeting today in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is attempting to convince both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to reassess their positions. NEW YORK TIMES:
The New York Times urges both the Israelis and the Palestinians to take U.S. President Bill Clinton's new peace ideas as the basis for a final settlement, whether or not a framework agreement can be reached in the coming days or weeks. The paper says in an editorial: "[Mr.] Clinton has offered Israeli and Palestinian negotiators some creative ideas for a final peace settlement. Whether the ideas can serve as the basis for agreement in the waning days of [his] presidency is doubtful. But they deserve careful consideration by both sides."
The editorial argues that Clinton's proposals have given Arafat "almost everything he sought on Jerusalem at the Camp David summit meeting in July" and that the main obstacle now is whether or not millions of Palestinian refugees have a right to return to Israel. The paper calls any such return "unrealistic" and says "a better approach would be to put together an international compensation and resettlement package for these refugees, housing as many of them as practical in the new Palestinian state."
The New York Times concludes that it is difficult to imagine all the complexities of the Middle East conflict can be resolved in a matter of days. But, it says, "Mr. Clinton, if nothing else, has presented a set of proposals that the incoming Bush administration can pursue in the months ahead with Israeli and Palestinian leaders." CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR:
The Christian Science Monitor also focuses on the refugee issue as now being the central sticking point in any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In a news analysis, correspondent Cameron Barr writes that "insisting on the right of return has been a tenet of the Palestinian cause for decades. [In] the grim, entrenched refugee camps of Lebanon, it is the central hope for the future." Barr continues: "The sacredness of the idea makes it hard for Arafat to give ground, particularly at a time when many Palestinians have sacrificed loved ones in the cause of confronting Israeli forces."
But the analyst says that Arafat has done nothing to prepare the Palestinians for a compromise over the right-of-return issue, which is anathema to Israelis. Still, the writer sees room for flexibility on both sides. He says: "The most important thing may be for Israel to acknowledge what happened in 1948 -- pro-Israeli histories emphasize Arab flight, while other historians highlight the efforts of Jews to clear the land of its inhabitants -- by formally recognizing the right of return." But Barr says once the right is recognized, "then some [refugees] should return and some should find other ways to get compensation" as a realistic solution to the impasse. LIBERATION:
The French daily Liberation sees hope that Barak and Arafat may yet meet in an effort to find a framework peace deal, simply because both sides prefer working with Clinton to starting over with a new U.S. administration after January 20. In a signed editorial, Gerard DuPuy writes that "Clinton's new proposals do not greatly differ from the outline he put forth at Camp David, even though they take Palestinian aspirations into greater account, particularly over the explosive issue of dividing Jerusalem."
Now, DuPuy says, the question is whether Arafat will seize the occasion before a new US. administration takes office and pursues its own Middle East policy. He says that "even if Clinton is sometimes maladroit, he has proven his good will." By contrast, he writes, Clinton's successors "are more in the mold of the Pentagon, which does not necessarily signify bellicosity as much as political indifference accompanied by a confidence in military superiority."
Press commentary today also turns to Serbia and progress there following an overwhelming victory by reformists in last weekend's parliamentary elections.
LOS ANGELES TIMES:
The Los Angeles Times writes in an editorial that Serbia has made "a big step but still has miles to go." The paper says "the resounding victory of Vojislav Kostunica's democratic coalition in Serbia's parliamentary elections [completes] a peaceful transfer of power that no one would have thought possible six months ago. [The] victory gave Belgrade its first non-Socialist government since the end of World War Two." But the paper cautions that "dismantling the system in Serbia [was] the easy part. [Turning] Serbia from a thoroughly corrupt dictatorship to a society based on law will prove far more difficult." The editorial notes that while former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists scored just 13 percent in the elections, "they remain in charge of much of the economy and are the paymasters of the nation's police force." The Los Angeles Times concludes: "This combination must be dismantled if democracy is to prevail."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
The Wall Street Journal Europe says it is now time for Serbs to bring Milosevic to trial for war crimes. The paper says in an editorial that "prosecuting Milosevic for all his crimes would be a logical next step after his ouster from power in October and the Serbian people's wholesale rejection of his party at parliamentary elections."
The editorial continues: "There can be no doubt that the Serbian people have been Milosevic's primary victim. He has victimized his country not just by persecuting those with different political views and through economic misrule, but also by filling the hearts of far too many Serbians with the most destructive type of nationalism."
But the paper also says that, because many Serbs would reject sending Milosevic to the UN's International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, the best place to try the former leader may be in Serbia itself. The editorial argues: "Handing Milosevic over to The Hague will make him appear the victim in the eyes of most Serbs, who remain under the impression [that] the tribunal was created to persecute Serbs." It concludes that "a trial in Serbia may ultimately be more salutary for Serbs than one in The Hague [because] it would obviate the charge of victor's justice that dogged Allied powers after World War Two."
Finally, one paper today looks at the continuing question of how fast the European Union should move in enlarging to the east. In a commentary in the Washington Post, analyst Jeffrey Gedmin writes that "publicly everyone [in the EU] is still for enlargement, but privately is another matter." He recalls that former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing recently "worried in public" that enlarging the EU may end up diluting it and pressed for closing the EU's doors after its taking in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Gedmin says this reflects a view that "the strategic priority of the EU is to make Europe into an international political and economic power center." He continues: "That means deepening and consolidating power first. [It's] no wonder then that the East Europeans often feel like the unwelcome, poor country cousins."
The writer notes that "only one in three citizens in Western Europe thinks that admitting new members from the east should be a priority." He argues that it is unlikely the enlargement process will go any more easily in the future than it has over the last decade. Still, Gedmin says, the EU must recognize that "conditions for EU enlargement will probably never be more favorable than they are today," and he calls on the Union to push ahead with expansion. The writer concludes: "Europe's fragile new democracies need encouragement, incentive and a realistic perspective to join the West -- even if the old ones think they have more important things to do."