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Western Press Review: Israeli Election Dominates Commentaries

Prague, 6 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press continues to focus on today's Israeli election for prime minister and the impact the result will have on the Middle East's troubled peace process. Other comments address the European Union's Security and Defense Initiative, the role of U.S. banks in international money laundering, a terrorism trial that opened yesterday in New York, and why Saddam Hussein may win the war over U.S. sanctions in Iraq.


An editorial in the Washington Post calls right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon, the likely victor in today's election, "the Israeli leader most feared and hated in the Arab world." Although the new Bush administration may prefer to concentrate its Middle East diplomacy on issues like oil prices and Saddam Hussein, the editorial says that the Arab-Israeli conflict "still sets the climate" of the region. The paper urges the U.S. government to try to move both Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat away from the destructive policies that will likely mark their relations.

The editorial concludes: "For months and maybe years the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be destined to be a grinding, occasionally bloody stalemate, awaiting leaders who can move beyond what Mr. Arafat, and Mr. Sharon, represent."


In a commentary in the International Herald Tribune entitled "Ways to Sober Up on the Morning After," analyst Marwan Bishara warns that any move by a Sharon-led government toward military confrontation in the region "would be costly and would achieve nothing." Bishara argues that peace can still be achieved if the international community is vigilant in reminding both Sharon and Arafat that violence in the region will not be tolerated.

The commentator also says: "Today Palestinians need to make absolutely clear that their uprising is civil and nonviolent." But he adds that it is "impunity, especially in the case of Ariel Sharon" that would prove most destructive to the peace process.


Another commentary in the International Herald Tribune focuses on the failure of the election's likely loser, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, to bring peace to Israel. Abraham Rabinovich writes that Barak's broad concessions during last summer's Camp David summit, followed by Arafat's round rejection of the plan, have driven Israeli voters into Sharon's camp despite their support of the peace process. Rabinovich writes: "Peace suddenly came to be seen as an illusion, at least for the present, and Mr. Barak became the focus of widespread disappointment."

The commentator goes on to say that Barak's enthusiastic pursuit of peace created a sense of weakness in Israel, a country where security has long been equated with military might and the ability to deter Arab advances. Rabinovich writes: "Enter Ariel Sharon. If there is any figure in Israel who symbolizes deterrence it is he. Through an eventful military career he was for the country's leadership both an efficient war machine and a loose cannon."

Rabinovich adds: "Israelis have now given top priority to restoring their deterrent posture, whatever the cost."


An editorial in the Wall Street Journal Europe says that the EU's European Security and Defense Initiative, known as ESDI, runs the risk of alienating both the United States and other NATO members. ESDI seeks to create a 60,000-man rapid-reaction force under EU command by 2003. Despite protests from the U.S.' European allies, it has been seen by some as a parry to the Bush administration's recent commitment to what it is calling a global missile defense system

The editorial warns that debate over ESDI may widen the U.S.-EU divide even further, especially if the Union opts to increase military spending for ESDI while disregarding the U.S. defense program. The paper says: "Maybe EU leaders will conclude that a European defense force is worth all of the trouble. But if they are now willing to spend more on security, why not start by helping to build a global missile defense system?"


An editorial in Britain's Financial Times, responding to a report on international money laundering issued yesterday by a U.S. Senate committee, says the involvement of U.S. banks in the $600-billion-a-year business is "hardly a surprise." Nor, says the paper, can the trend be stopped completely.

Still, the editorial argues, the banks must do more to make money laundering more difficult and expensive for the criminals who perpetrate it. A number of rules and guidelines have been issued in recent months directing international financial institutions on how to better monitor their activities.

The editorial says: "Effective voluntary action is the best way to chase off the money launderers with the minimum inconvenience to legitimate customers. But if it fails, [national] authorities will need to crack the whip with uncomfortable vigor."


An editorial in the New York Times calls the trial of four accused terrorists that began yesterday in New York an "extraordinary challenge to the impartial administration of justice in the United States."

The defendants, all non-Americans, have been accused of being part of a global conspiracy ring responsible for orchestrating a number of terrorist attacks. They include the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which together killed 224 people. The ring is widely believed to be run by Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama bin Laden, who is thought to be in Afghanistan.

The Times' editorial says that the grave nature of the crimes must not sway the court from exercising extreme caution in preserving the rights of the defendants. The paper writes: "Terrorists attack physical targets for political ends. In this case, nothing would suit Mr. bin Laden more than to see the United States betray its judicial principles by failing to give the defendants a fair and just trial."


In a commentary in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes that the Bush administration has a "full-fledged public relations disaster on its hands" in the Arab world, where opposition to U.S. sanctions on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is widespread.

Friedman writes that U.S. officials have failed to understand the typical Arab perspective on the Iraqi leader. He writes: "On the Arab street the notion that at least one Arab country, Iraq, has weapons of mass destruction that can balance Israel's is very popular." He says it has never been accepted that "if you squeeze Iraq long enough the Iraqi people will oust Saddam."

Friedman writes further: "The U.S. effort to isolate Saddam has died of many causes." He concludes: "Before the [UN] sanctions regime collapses entirely, the U.S. needs to find a way to at least salvage an international ban on all weapons sales to Iraq."