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Western Press Review: Israeli Election, Controversy Over NMD

By Daisy Sindelar/Joel Blocker

Prague, 5 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Much Western press commentary focuses on tomorrow's Israeli election for prime minister, a pivotal moment for the Middle East peace process. There are also several comments on the controversial U.S. project for a National Missile Defense, or NMD. The idea of an NMD, backed by the new Bush administration, has riled some of the U.S.' European allies, and at a Munich security conference over the weekend it was a major subject for discussion.


Most press commentary on the Israeli election for prime minister takes for granted a victory by right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon over the incumbent, Labor premier Ehud Barak. In an editorial titled "Dealing with Mr. Sharon," Britain's Financial Times says: "Unless opinion polls prove extraordinarily wrong, voters [will pick [Sharon, a] passionate proponent of the policies that have made the search for an Israeli-Palestine settlement so elusive."

The editorial continues: "Israelis are understandably disappointed with Mr. Barak. Instead of his promised end of the Middle East conflict, he delivered a new Palestinian uprising that has deepened Israelis' insecurity and confirmed their worst suspicions about their Arab neighbors." It adds: "That [Barak] was the first Israeli leader to shatter the myth of Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital was not appreciated. Nor were his vacillation and inability to forge consensus around him."


Il Messaggero, published in Rome, calls Barak "a good general, but a wretched politician." The paper notes that Israeli soldiers actually began voting yesterday. "Will they choose [Sharon]," it asks, "who carries the responsibility for the Intifada, [again] as head of government?" The paper notes that many Israeli soldiers consider Sharon "to have been a great general [for his role in the 1967 and, particularly, 1973 wars with the Arabs] but a failure as a statesman and politician." It concludes that the military vote is difficult to predict.


The Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger writes of "an election full of contradictions." It says: "Unless a miracle occurs, Ehud Barak is going to lose his job as prime minister -- after a mere 19 months in office and challenged by a man whose political biography rouses apprehensions. It seems that the general disappointment in Barak is greater than the fear of Sharon."

The paper's editorial continues: "The choice of Sharon would surely be a contradictory one. On the one hand, the majority would stand squarely behind the opposition leader, signaling to the Palestinians that force will no longer lead to any compromises. But the same majority supports the continuation of the peace process. [Given all that,] the safest prognosis may be to say simply: the situation in the region will not calm down after the election."


In a news analysis written from Jerusalem for the New York Times, Deborah Sontag says: "Most Israelis are already peering beyond election day to the diplomatic and political repercussions of what news programs call 'The Day After.'"

She adds: "With opinion polls showing Mr. Sharon 17 to 21 percentage points ahead of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the outcome of the Israeli election is accepted as a foregone conclusion by almost everyone. Even [an unnamed] very close associate of Mr. Barak [speaks] not of 'if' but of 'when' the prime minister loses. [He says] no one knows what Mr. Barak would do next: quit as Labor Party leader, join a unity government with Mr. Sharon, or seek to persevere as the opposition leader."

Sontag also says: "Across the country, Israelis are tired after months of disorienting commotion. The fall brought the dispiriting deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship into ongoing violence. And the winter brought a divisive election campaign after Mr. Barak, pushed into a corner by a parliament in open revolt, resigned."

Barak's resignation, she says, "forced an election just 19 months after he soared into office on a strong majority vote."


An Israeli analyst, Uri Dromi, is kinder to Barak in a commentary carried in today's International Herald Tribune. Dromi writes: "Two out of three Israelis still support the peace process, and yet they are going to vote Sharon. They have watched Mr. Barak go out of his way to meet Palestinian demands, only to be answered by bullets and bombs. They feel a growing sense that there is no real partner on the Palestinian side. If there were one, they reason, there would be no shooting, only talking."

"Eventually," the commentator argues, "after another round of violence, Israelis and Palestinians are bound to return to the negotiation table and pick up where the brave and farseeing Mr. Barak left off. There is simply no other way. Unfortunately, a lot of blood will be shed in the meantime."


In a rare defense of Sharon in the Western press, columnist Seth Lipsky says in the Wall Street Journal Europe: "In the long run, Mr. Sharon believes, real peace in the Middle East is going to be made only between democracies. He pressed the point [in a 1991 speech at Britain's Oxford University] that some of us believe was his greatest. It was derided by the appeasement camp, as setting an impossible standard for peace, given the Middle East has seen so little democracy."

"But if he is elected tomorrow," Lipsky argues, "Mr. Sharon may well revive this theme as he sketches for the first time his own foreign policy, one that in the long run may seek new partners in the Arab world, leaders more inclined to build real democracy than [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat has proved to be."


Another commentary in the International Herald Tribune, this one by the paper's executive editor David Ignatius, says: "The modern history of the Middle East is a story of missed opportunities. Against that background, the negotiations at the Egyptian border town of Taba that finally collapsed on 27 January deserve at least a minor footnote. They were the last gasp of President Bill Clinton's Mideast diplomacy, and a warning of the difficulties that now face President George W. Bush."

Ignatius continues: "Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met at Taba for one last try at a framework for peace. When the talks ended the two sides were near agreement on every item except one, the issue of Palestinian refugees." He says further: "Negotiators issued a joint statement saying they had 'never been closer to reaching' a final peace deal. But then it blew up, with a rant by Yasser Arafat that is sadly typical of his career of bellicose blunders. Less than 24 hours after his negotiators had achieved nearly every demand at Taba, he delivered an anti-Israel diatribe in Davos, Switzerland, denouncing the Jewish state as 'fascist.'"

Ignatius concludes: "Mr. Arafat hopes to start the bargaining anew, with the Bush administration's help, at the point where Taba left off. In this he has probably made a tragic misjudgment, for it is doubtful that a Sharon government will offer the same terms. The burden [thus] now shifts to Mr. Bush."


Turning to European security affairs, Matthew Kaminski writes in a Wall Street Journal Europe news analysis that officials in both Europe and the U.S. are concerned about Washington's NMD project, which they see as heralding a chilly new trend in trans-Atlantic relations. The plan was outlined at the annual Munich security conference over the past weekend by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and commented on by several participants.

Kaminiski says many European officials, pointing to U.S. support of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and a perceptible cooling of U.S.-Russian relations, worry that any active opposition to NMD on their part will only weaken further the NATO alliance. He cites U.S. Senator John McCain, an NMD supporter, as saying that the geographical divide between the U.S. and Europe may soon become a "functional" one as well.

Mutual animosity may be further heightened by the European Union's plan to deploy an independent defense force, Kaminski adds. He notes Rumsfeld's remark that such a move, if made without the close participation of NATO, could "run the risk of injecting instability into an extremely important alliance."


Michael Gordon of the New York Times describes a mood of grim resignation dominating the two-day conference in Bavaria, with debate already advancing to the issue of how the U.S. should develop a missile defense program, rather than whether it actually should. Only Sergei Ivanov, the head of the Kremlin's security council, openly opposed the plan, saying NMD will "create the prerequisites for a new arms race." Gordon also says that Rumsfeld, the first Bush cabinet member to travel to Europe, made only passing mention of strategic powers Russia and China, leading some to conclude that the new U.S. administration is still far from working out the kinks in its diplomatic policy. Gordon likens the verbal sparring between Rumsfeld and Ivanov to Cold War-era superpower jousting, but suggests that this time around the Russians may be losing influence over their European neighbors.


In a news analysis, Joseph Fitchett of the International Herald Tribune says Rumsfeld described NMD as a potentially mobile global defense system capable of protecting not only the U.S. and its armed forces but allied nations as well. He says that discussions on practical missile deployment issues dominated much of the conference.

Fitchett says that Rumsfeld's description of such an all-inclusive system can be seen as an attempt to stem European criticism of the U.S. plan to proceed with the missile defense plan. He cites Rumsfeld as urging the allies to agree that they "share similar threats" to the ones facing the U.S.

Fitchett also says that Rumsfeld declined to bring up either political or technological issues that would keep the U.S. from proceeding with the project. No mention, the writer says, was made of the fact that tests of similar defense systems during the Clinton presidency repeatedly failed. According to the analyst, Rumsfeld said the Bush administration will authorize a research program that will branch out into a wider range of technology that will allow for new ideas such as space sensors and using tactical anti-missile systems designed to intercept short-range nuclear missiles.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)