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Western Press Review: Mideast Still In Spotlight; Russia, Serbia

Prague, 29 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Middle East continues to attract the attention of the Western press, as U.S. efforts to renew peace talks have stalled. Israelis and Palestinians cancelled a meeting yesterday planned in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, due to differences over the U.S. peace proposals.


France's Liberation daily looks with disappointment at yesterday's missed peace summit in a news analysis entitled "Battling over Peace." Correspondent Alexandra Schwartzbrod writes that yesterday "should have been a day for peace, instead it was a day of rage. Confronted with the extent of the Palestinians' reservations about Bill Clinton's peace proposals, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak opted to cancel his participation."

She continues: "The problem is that Clinton's proposals sow as much discord as they encourage peace making. The Palestinians consider the plan too vague and a time-bomb waiting to explode later. As for the Israelis," Schwartzbrod continues, "they are fighting among themselves over the plan's proposal to give the Palestinians sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem, known to the Jews as the Temple Mount."

Schwartzbrod sees only dim prospects that the two sides can overcome these obstacles and make peace, particularly while violence continues between them. The analyst concludes: "The only thing that is clear is that a month and-a-half before Israeli elections, renewed bombing attacks [by Palestinians yesterday] can only harden the Israelis' position and make them more receptive to the ideas of right-wing leader Ariel Sharon."


The Chicago Tribune says in an editorial that Clinton is right to make one final attempt at a Mideast peace before he leaves office on January 20, but -- the paper adds -- it appears he will not succeed. The editorial says that "the latest American formula for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an attempt to start the end game of the peace process [and] President Clinton deserves credit. [But] at the moment, it looks as though the moment for peace is not ripe."

The paper argues that the Clinton plan is difficult for the Palestinians to accept but at the same time also "represents the only chance [the Palestinians] are likely to have in the foreseeable future to gain much of what they want." The editorial continues: "While Barak holds out the prospect of ceding a reported 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, Sharon would rather hold on to roughly half."

The Chicago Tribune sums up: "Both sides should understand that the choices won't get any easier if they are delayed. As former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said of the fighting that has gone on for three months, 'What we are seeing today is the glorious alternative to peace.'"


Britain's Independent daily says that Clinton's peace plan was doomed from the start because it asked the Palestinians to concede too much for a peace they could not live with later. Correspondent Robert Fisk writes in a commentary that what he calls the "sham summit" planned for yesterday in Sharm al-Sheikh "promised too little for the Palestinians." He continues: "In the end, it was the same old story. The Israelis would make 'one last step for peace' [and] Yasser Arafat would be blamed if he turned down the last chance he would ever get for a real peace in the Middle East. Thus was yesterday's doomed summit at Sharm el-Sheikh promoted and, upon these factual untruths, it died before it was ever held."

Fisk argues that "Mr. Arafat could not accept the terms because although Israel was offering the Palestinians 'control' of the surface of the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, it never offered 'sovereignty.'" And he says the plan asked the Palestinians to renounce land now holding Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- in exchange for land which, Fisk says, "happens to be desert" -- as well as to renounce the right of return for refugees in exchange for a "hope that some could go to the new Palestine where they never had their home."

Fisk concludes that, given these proposals, "Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak were never going to make a deal. That much is certain. Along with the fact that the ever-more humiliated Mr. Arafat is going to be blamed yet again for turning down that infamous last 'chance for peace'."


Turning to Russia, Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung looks today at President Vladimir Putin's first year in office. Markus Wehner writes in a commentary that "one year ago, Russian President Boris Yeltsin avoided making the greatest mistake a Russian ruler can make: to leave his people without a successor. On New Year's Eve, he presented to his compatriots a successor in the person of a politically inexperienced former spy," Vladimir Putin. But the commentator says that Putin's first year has produced few results except to consolidate his own hold on power.

Wehner writes: "There can be no talk of great successes. The economic data may be positive, but growth stemmed mainly from higher oil prices [and Mr. Putin] did not use the relatively good economic year to implement urgently needed structural reforms."

The writer continues: "The same is true of the measures Mr. Putin has taken against the oligarchs. [His] persistence in trying to neutralize media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky suggests that the president's 'dictatorship of law' is less about punishing the robber-barons of privatization than muzzling those who ignore his decrees." Wehner concludes that "Putin's greatest progress has come in advancing his own cause [and that] we can predict in the coming year Mr. Putin will split completely with those whom he inherited from the Yeltsin era, who still limit his freedom to do as he likes."

Commentary in several papers today discusses the challenges confronting Serbia after voters in the larger of the two Yugoslav republics handed victory to a democratic coalition in last weekend's parliamentary elections.


Britain's Financial Times entitles its editorial, "Tall Order for Serbia," and says: "The toughest European political job of the New Year goes to Zoran Djindjic, Serbia's prime minister designate." The paper says Djindjic faces "a demanding but not impossible mandate," and provides a checklist of tasks he must complete to succeed. They range from tackling "power, fuel, and water shortages that have resulted from war, neglect and international sanctions [to removing Slobodan] Milosevic's supporters from influential jobs in the police, army and civil service."

The paper also says Serbia must put its relations with its neighbors on a stable footing if it wants to join the international community and "work out an arrangement with [the Yugoslav junior republic,] Montenegro, whose urge to secede could bring fresh instability to the whole region." It urges the Serbian government not to reopen the issue of Kosovo, which, although "legally part of Serbia, should for the time being remain an informal United Nations protectorate." And it says Serbia's new government must be prepared to send Milosevic to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

The Financial Times sums up: "What matters now is to stabilize Serbia. Later, delivering Mr. Milosevic will be a price Serbia must pay to become a normal country."


A Washington Post editorial congratulates Serbs for backing the victorious democratic coalition, saying that "last weekend's sweeping opposition victory [bolstered] hopes that the former Yugoslavia may be on the road to recovery from the rule of Slobodan Milosevic." But the paper says electricity shortages this week "have brought multiple reminders of how long and hard the road may be." And worse, "cracks are opening fast in the 18-party alliance that elected [President Vojislav] Kostunica and took two-thirds of the seats in [the] Serbian Parliament."

The editorial says the cracks include Djindjic saying he may soon take steps to arrest and try Milosevic, while Kostunica suggests any such prosecution await legal reforms. The paper adds: "There are also sharp differences over how to deal with [ethnic] Albanian militants, with Mr. Kostunica stressing the need for negotiations with NATO and moderate Albanian leaders, even as other government officials issue ultimatums."

The Washington Post concludes that, "if Yugoslavia's nascent democracy is to survive, Mr. Djindjic's new Serbian government needs to join with Mr. Kostunica in quickly implementing a package of basic reforms." It says these must include dismantling Milosevic's security apparatus in Serbia, reforming the Milosevic-imposed constitution, and fostering a free press and independent court system.