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Western Press Review: Mideast, Russia. U.S.-Iraq

Prague, 12 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Middle East continues to evoke considerable commentary in the Western press, with much of the attention focusing on new Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's efforts to form a government of national unity. There are also some comments today on Russia and U.S. policy toward Iraq.


Britain's Financial Times says in an editorial that Sharon's quest for a national unity government shows the right-wing leader "is conscious of the need to soften his image and enhance his international credibility." The paper adds: "A broad-based coalition [that included members of the rival Labor Party] could also win more lasting support in Israel's fractious parliament and make for more stable government."

"Labor is understandably cautious," the editorial continues. "Battered by the crushing election defeat of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his subsequent resignation, it faces a bitter leadership contest. Many leading members argue that joining a coalition government would deepen internal divisions. They are also loath to lend credibility to a controversial right-wing leader whose idea of peace with the Palestinians is irreconcilable with theirs."

The editorial say further: "Indeed, it seems likely that any government led by Mr. Sharon, even one of national unity, would at best produce prolonged and uneasy stalemate on the peace front. Given his peace prescriptions -- that Israel should hold on to over half of the West Bank and consider no compromise on Jerusalem -- Mr. Sharon would be hard pressed to find a Palestinian negotiator to talk to."


But a news analysis in the Guardian daily says that Israel's "Labor Party, the erstwhile bastion of the [country's political establishment, appears] to be heading toward collective suicide, [with] deep splits opening over the prospect of an alliance with [Sharon]." Writing from Jerusalem, correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg notes that, "as Shimon Peres, Labor's elder statesman, declared yesterday (Sunday) his willingness to serve Mr. Sharon as foreign minister in a national unity coalition, several figures in the party, including its leading dove, Yossi Beilin, were poised to make their exit."

The analysis goes on to say: "Never a cohesive force, Labor's divisions became starkly apparent during the election campaign, with key figures -- including Mr. Peres -- working behind the scenes to bring down Mr. Barak. [With] negotiations underway for a unity government, those ugly rivalries have been exposed to full public view. But many argue that a coalition with Mr. Sharon could prove even more damaging, by robbing Labor of its one selling point: its willingness to make the painful compromises needed for a peace deal with the Palestinians."

Goldenberg sums up: "Israeli commentators now predict that a unity coalition, which looked like a very real possibility yesterday, could kill off Labor entirely."


According to another news analysis from Jerusalem, this one in the Washington Post, the Palestinian leadership also appears split on what to do next. Correspondent Keith Richburg writes: "With hard-liner [Sharon] preparing to become Israel's leader -- pledging no division of Jerusalem and the withdrawal of concessions offered by [Barak] -- the Palestinians, whose uprising helped elect [Sharon], are facing a difficult question: What next?"

The Palestinians, the analysis says further, are actually facing several key questions: "Should they continue their revolt and risk even more harsh Israeli military reprisals? [Should they] signal a new willingness to negotiate tough issues such as the right of return for Palestinian refugees? [Should they] appeal anew to Israel's disillusioned peace camp? Or [should they] simply wait out the Sharon era and hope for a more flexible Israeli government in the future?"

The analyst then says: "No clear [answers are] emerging, largely because the [Palestinians lack] a long-term or even a short-term strategy. [Their] ultimate goal is still a viable [state] in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with its capital in Jerusalem. But the Palestinians are deeply divided over how to move from here to there."


Turning to Russia, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal Europe urges that creditor nations should not allow Russia to renege on its Soviet-era debts. The paper writes: "After threatening to suspend payments on its Paris Club [of creditor nations] debt, Russia [last week] seemingly backed off and budgeted for further debt service. [But] countries should honor their debts," the editorial argues. "Indeed, there is no more basic requirement of membership in the community of responsible nations than meeting contractual obligations. [Russia ] has defaulted three times on its Soviet-era debts already and received numerous breaks in terms of rescheduling, IMF [International Monetary Fund] credits, and other relief along the way."

The editorial goes on: "Russia's very membership in the Paris Club [required] a suspension of disbelief. To be recognized as a creditor nation, Russia was allowed to include debts owed it by other former Soviet republics -- which, in turn, required valuing as credit some of the military hardware 'lent' to these governments against their wishes. The Paris Club then magnanimously valued these debts at the old Soviet rate of 0.6 to the dollar, magically elevating Russia to creditor nation status."

Yet, the paper adds, "the experience of the last decade is that reform in Russia runs in inverse relation to the comfort level of the country's business and political leaders. That comfort level could be significantly reduced if the Paris Club punished threats of default by closing down access to further lending." It concludes: "Now, it may be that the Kremlin decided last week that it might be running such a risk. But there's reason to fear that Russia's apparent retreat is more a tactical shift than a sign that it has had word from its sovereign creditors that they have resolved to start treating Russia as a grown-up."


In a commentary for the Washington Post entitled "The Bipolar Bear," Fred Hiatt discusses what he calls "the quandary facing the Bush administration as it formulates a Russia policy." He says the new government in Washington has to "consider two contrasting faces that Moscow presented to the West in recent days." Hiatt writes: "Start, because it's more pleasant, with Yegor Gaidar, the reformer who came through Washington recently to present his assessment of Russia's first post-Soviet decade. A liberal democrat, a market economist, an unabashed Westernizer, Gaidar in some ways represents the future Russia of America's dreams.

But, Hiatt writes, "then turn, because it's unavoidable, to Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin national security adviser who in Munich [several] days ago offered a convincing view of the nightmare alternative. Ivanov's combination of self-pity and belligerence reflected the worst of Russia's inability to come to terms with its new place in the world. He lashed out at NATO, attributed nefarious plots to the West in a way that would have made Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko blush and insisted that Russia's brutal war against Muslim civilians in Chechnya is in fact 'saving the civilized world from the terrorist plague [and] we pay for it, in suffering and privation.'"

The commentary continues: "It was hard to tell how much of that Ivanov truly believed and how much he thought clever propaganda. [It was] hard to tell, too, which of those possible explanations is more alarming. For in evaluating these two faces of Russia, one fact has to be acknowledged from the start: Ivanov is in the Kremlin, close to the source of power, an intimate aide of President Vladimir Putin. Gaidar is in opposition."


Another Washington Post commentary says that "Washington's Iraq policy needs urgent fixing." Columnist Jim Hoagland writes: "For the first time since the Gulf War ended a decade ago, Iraqi anti-aircraft units [now] seriously endanger the lives of American and British pilots enforcing no-fly zones over that Arab country.

Concern over a small but abrupt rise in Iraqi surface-to-air missile batteries and a recent change in tactics by Iraqi gunners reaches from the top of the Pentagon down to the crews operating out of Saudi Arabia and Turkey."

Hoagland goes on: "The incoming Bush administration recognizes Iraq as an urgent foreign policy issue. But it needs to move more quickly to minimize the risk that Saddam Hussein will seize the initiative in a new Gulf crisis by knocking down a U.S. or British warplane with an SA-6 missile." He says further: "Iraqi gunners have had years to watch the flight patterns of U.S. and British warplanes on patrol and have developed effective ways of using the SA-6 radar to guide the missile after it has been fired. This sharply decreases the time available to a pilot to evade the Iraqi rocket or to fire on the attacking battery."

Hoagland then writes: "Pilots will adapt their tactics of evasion, and the new SA-6 batteries do not change the U.S.-Iraqi military balance. But the new risks show that the Bush team does not have a minute to waste in reassessing the cost-benefit ratio of the military effort it has inherited in Iraq." He concludes: "That effort has not achieved results worth the potential sacrifices it asks pilots to make. The time for symbolic military action against Saddam is over. [We] are at a crossroads. It is time to get real, or to get out."