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Western Press Review: Building A Government, Destroying Statues

Prague, 7 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today continues to cover a wide range of issues. They include Ariel Sharon's agenda as he assumes office as Israel's prime minister, the ongoing debate over the Taliban's apparent destruction of ancient relics in Afghanistan, possible independence for Kosovo, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's cyberspace debut.


An editorial in today's "Jerusalem Post" offers words of cautious encouragement to Ariel Sharon as he assumes the Israeli premiership and presents his government to the Knesset [parliament] this evening. With Sharon's coalition controlling some 70 of the parliament's 120 seats, the new prime minister seems to have delivered on his promise to establish a national unity government. In doing so, the editorial says, "he is expressing the nation's will."

The paper continues, however, with a warning: "Even with the almost wall-to-wall support of the Knesset, his government will be faced with tremendous pressures, both internal and external, and it will take all of Sharon's years of experience and leadership to safely guide the ship of state."

Sharon's top priority, the paper says, is bringing to an end the five months of violence that have followed in the wake of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's shattered peace talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It says Barak, in his race for peace, didn't stop to consider the consequences of failure, and has left Israel with what it calls "the worst of all worlds: no peace process and [Palestinian Authority]-sponsored terrorism within and outside the Green Line [separating Israel proper from the Occupied Territories]."

The editorial goes on to say that Sharon must now deliver on a second promise: no negotiations with the Palestinian Authority while Israel is under fire. It says: "This is a red line that must not be breached, even if his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, suggests creative solutions to end the impasse. The minute the Palestinians see that Sharon, too, can be manipulated into making concessions while violence continues, they will have no reason to hold their fire."


Britain's "Daily Telegraph" says it is time to give Kosovo independence. In an editorial, the paper examines what it considers the irony of NATO's latest task in the Balkans -- trying to protect Serbia and Macedonia against attacks by Kosovar guerrillas, just two years after it went to war against Yugoslavia to counter ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The paper says: "Criminality and ethnic discrimination are not activities which the NATO bombing campaign was designed to further."

The editorial points to last October's municipal-elections win by Ibrahim Rugova and his moderate Democratic League of Kosovo as a positive first step towards Kosovar independence. But it says that as long as the province remains a UN protectorate, it will also remain a part of the Yugoslav federation -- and its fate beyond general elections due later this year will remain unclear.

The editorial says: "That uncertainty breeds frustration, which in turn encourages recourse to violence. The sooner the outside powers give the province the green light for independence, the better." It continues: "For their part, the [Kosovar] guerrillas could usefully reflect that their activities are a stumbling-block to naming a date for the next round of elections, and are unnecessarily antagonizing Serbia and Macedonia. The way forward for Kosovo is through the likes of Mr. Rugova, not the armed advocates of a 'Greater Albania.'"


A commentary in Britain's "Guardian" daily looks at the public outcry over plans by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia to destroy the millennium-old standing Buddha statues in Bamiyan. The writer, Isabel Hilton, calls the international outrage "justified," but adds: "It is also true that few countries are innocent of past zealotry and iconoclasm."

Hilton continues: "Genghis Khan's forces destroyed Bamiyan in 1221, despite the fact that Genghis Khan himself was to become one of history's less likely Buddhists. British forces demolished most of the 15th-century mosque in Musallah in Afghanistan in 1885 and in China, temples and monasteries were demolished during the Great Leap Forward." She says further: "From some perspectives, history seems like one long catalogue of destruction by one tribe of the treasures of another."

So the question, the author says, is not "why?" but "why now?" She says that as recently as 1998, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered the Buddha statues' protection, if only to encourage a revival of tourism. Now, however, with UN sanctions and nearly 20 years' of war taking their toll, Hilton writes that Omar's pronouncement is "a political gesture in which doctrine is only a pretext."

The commentary goes on: "[The Taliban] is not the most appealing regime, but nor is it the only regime in the world that stones adulterers to death, condemns women to a half-life behind the veil or amputates the hands of thieves." The country's devastation, she adds, is "as much the responsibility of outsiders as of Afghans."

Hilton concludes: "Afghanistan's cultural heritage, belatedly, has our attention. For the sake of the statues of Bamiyan, as well as the people of Afghanistan, perhaps we could find a more constructive response than another round of sanctions. Unless we do, the giant Buddhas will be remembered as the latest victims of a crisis the West contributed to and then tried to forget."


A pair of commentaries in today's "International Herald Tribune" propose how to make the United States' plan for a national missile defense a project with global appeal. Analyst Hans Binnendijk writes: "The Bush administration can make a quick decision on national missile defenses or it can make the right decision." The right decision, the writer argues, is to build a new national consensus that could be supported by U.S. allies and even accepted by Russia. Without such a consensus, he says, "support for missile defenses will eventually dissipate under the crush of high costs, technological problems and allied opposition."

The commentator urges the creation of an effective, cost-efficient framework for a missile defense system that will not threaten the United States' strategic stability with Russia. He says the first stage of such a framework would be building boost-phase interceptors, which could be placed close to states like North Korea or Iran without threatening the deterrent power of Russia and China.

He says what he calls an "insurance policy" of mid-phase interceptors could also be used to deal with any warheads that leak through the first line of defense. Both interceptors would receive information from space-based infrared radars, but no weapons would have to be deployed in space.

Binnendijk writes: "America's allies should warm to this proposal. A boost phase system would protect Europe against [missiles] launched from the Middle East, and Japan would be better protected against North Korea's No Dong missile." Russia, he adds, "is threatened by the proliferation of regional missile capabilities, and the boost phase system would protect it as well."


The second commentary in today's "International Herald Tribune," originally published in the "New York Times," says last month's offer by Russian President Vladimir Putin to cooperate with NATO on a missile defense is "an important opportunity for the United States to engage Russia in a cooperative effort to develop a missile shield."

The writers, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, say: "A joint program of Russia and NATO to defend against possible missile attacks from countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq would address Europe's two main worries about the Bush administration's commitment to building an anti-missile system: that it could trigger a new Cold War with Russia, and that it would signify an American search for unilateral advantage."

They say Putin's proposal, though vague, is significant because it accepts the U.S. proposition that missile defense is an appropriate response to the proliferation of long-range missiles in a growing number of countries. But they add that the Russians, like Europe, want to take it a step further, making defenses part of a broader nonproliferation effort.

They write: "The best response to missile proliferation is a mix of strategies that focus on both preventing countries from acquiring missiles and rolling back missile programs that already exist." And they add: "The final line of defense is to deny rogue nations the ability to use their missiles by deploying defenses and striking preemptively. If the Bush administration demonstrates as much commitment to the first two strategies as it does to the third, Europe and Russia are much more likely to support missile defenses."

Daalder and Lindsay conclude by saying: "At a time when many in Moscow view the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with distrust, a major Russian-NATO initiative to deal with one of the principal threats to international security could place relations between the United States, Europe and Russia on a new and more constructive footing."


A news analysis in the French daily "Liberation" daily looks at President Putin's latest trip -- this time, to cyberspace. Veronique Soule writes: "The Russian president, who presents himself as an Internet fan, yesterday gave his first live interview on the Web, thus rejoining the small group of plugged-in leaders who have already taken the move like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin. Putin didn't make a single revelation but added the finishing touches to his image, confiding his weakness for Romy Schneider and his regret at the absence of women in the ranks of his team."

The analysis continues: "The interview was probably part of a media offensive that the Kremlin has launched to refurbish the image both of Russia and of a government that continues to create concern abroad. His jacket open, smiling in front of a laptop decorated with a Russian flag, the relaxed Putin answered questions from his Internet audience that could hardly be described as difficult. Only the British journalist from the BBC showed any initiative, asking several questions about human rights in Chechnya. His Russian counterparts and co-organizers of the interview, and -- both tied to the Kremlin -- were clearly more timid."