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Western Press Review: Violence Escalates In Middle East

Prague, 17 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Much commentary in today's Western press examines the escalation in Mideast violence over the weekend, with editorials warning that Syria's entry into the conflict could mean that bloodshed on all sides is likely to increase. Another comment questions the Western media's defense of Israel in the protracted conflict. Still other comments look at the effectiveness of the UN Commission on Human Rights and the United States' sudden interest in the 13-year Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.


An editorial in the "New York Times" says yesterday's Israeli air strike against a Syrian radar installation in Lebanon was "Israel's deepest and most significant attack against a Syrian target in nearly two decades." The paper adds: "[Israeli] Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon is right to hold Syria accountable for letting Lebanese [Hezbollah] guerrillas fire on Israeli soldiers [on 14 April in Shebaa Farms, a disputed area] across the international border. But by retaliating so far from the border, Israel risks a broader conflict involving Syrian forces as well." It adds: "The Hezbollah's fighters come mainly from Lebanon and its arms and money mainly from Iran. But it is Syria [that] has the power to halt Hezbollah's attacks, and Damascus refuses to do so. [If] Israel continues its air strikes to the point where [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] feels compelled to retaliate, Syria could inflict far more damage on Israel than Hezbollah can."


An editorial in today's "Jerusalem Post" says Israel's retaliatory strike against Syria "signals that the rules have finally changed: Israel will not tolerate attacks across the northern border." It goes on: "The 'Blue Line' that serves as a temporary border between Israel and Lebanon was demarcated by the United Nations with considerable effort and with full participation by both countries. [Israel] has kept its side of the bargain. [The] spoilers here are Iran and Syria which, through [Hezbollah], have blithely continued to use Lebanese territory to attack Israel without suffering the consequences." It adds: "Though the Lebanese government predictably condemned Israel's air strike, anyone who cares about the independence of Lebanon should be thanking Israel. As long as the Lebanese government does not have the power or the will to resist its exploitation by Iran and Syria, Israel will have to act against those foreign forces directly."


A comment in the British "Independent" criticizes what it calls the West's unquestioning support of Israel in the Mideast crisis. Robert Fisk writes: "No matter how many youths are shot dead by the Israelis, no matter how many murders -- by either side -- and no matter how bloody the reputation of the Israeli prime minister, we are reporting this terrible conflict as if we supported [South African apartheid.]"

He adds: "Rarely since the Second World War has a people been so vilified as the Palestinians. And rarely has a people been so frequently excused and placated as the Israelis. Israeli embassies are now buttonholing editors around he world, saying that it's not fair to call Israel's prime minister 'hard-line.' And the reporters are falling into line."

He continues: "[Israel has] made the Palestinians so crushed, so desperate, so humiliated that they have nothing to lose. We, too, have done this. Our gutlessness, our refusal to tell the truth, our fear of being slandered as 'anti-Semites' -- the most loathsome of libels against any journalist -- means that we are aiding and abetting terrible deeds in the Middle East."


A comment in the "International Herald Tribune" takes a critical look at the UN Commission on Human Rights, now holding its annual meeting in Geneva. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, writes: "The commission is the UN membership's chief human rights organ. [There] are no minimum criteria for membership. Dictatorships are as free as democracies to serve. The latest batch of new members illustrates how poorly this system works. They include such dubious paragons of human rights virtue as Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam." He adds: "With the cards thus stacked, action against even the worst human rights abusers is difficult to secure. That, in part, is why, even in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the commission never mustered enough votes to condemn China, and why the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein could gas and execute tens of thousands of Kurds with impunity before his ill-fated invasion of Kuwait." Roth concludes: "It is time for a rule requiring any prospective commission member to demonstrate a minimum of respect for human rights."


An editorial in the "Washington Post" says Nagorno-Karabakh appears to be the latest "intractable regional conflict" to capture the attention of the Bush administration. Citing Secretary of State Colin Powell's role as host to this month's Key West summit between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, the paper asks: "Why the sudden hands-on approach? Perhaps because one of [President George W. Bush's] central preoccupations, oil, is at stake. Azerbaijan has agreed to cooperate in the construction of a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean that would give the West direct access to the region's huge supplies of oil and gas, without passing through Russia or Iran."

It adds: "Even if oil were not involved, U.S. engagement in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations would be worthwhile. A settlement would help stabilize the volatile and strategic Caucasus region and open needy pro-Western countries such as Armenia and Georgia to trade and investment."


Commentator Quentin Peel writes in the "Financial Times": "The European Union is one of the world's most infuriating, arrogant, and time-consuming organizations with which to negotiate." As proof, he offers the testimony of former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, who in a recent interview discussed his past frustrations in dealing with the EU. Peel writes: "[Holbrooke's] most specific criticism is aimed at the rotating EU presidency, invented when there were only six member-states. [Each] member-state tries to push its chosen priority during the six months it is in office. Great amounts of bureaucratic energy go into drafting a summit declaration on the issue before the next country takes over and decides on a quite different priority."

He quotes Holbrooke as saying: "There is no question but that Europe is better off today institutionally than it was at any time in the last century. But the time has come for the Europeans to clean up their procedures, make decisions more quickly, and come to terms with the basic issues of democracy and accountability."


An editorial in the "Wall Street Journal Europe" turns the tables, considering the European perspective on the U.S. presidency. The paper says: "There's no question: George Bush has been something of a puzzle for Europe. When the U.S. president withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol [to decrease greenhouse gases], Europe was apoplectic. But then, quietly, [U.S. and European trade officials] settled a long-running trade dispute about bananas."

It continues: "Kyoto is not the last real policy dispute Mr. Bush will have with the EU before his term is up. On the Balkans, on missile defense, and perhaps on taxes, Mr. Bush will at times appear 'hard to do business with.'"

It adds: "[Bush] cannot be counted on always to play along with the EU when it comes to global-warming fantasies or opposition to the death penalty. But he can be relied on to say what he believes and stick by it."


"Washington Post" columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. comments: "If there is to be a death penalty [in the United States], [Timothy McVeigh], the man who killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, certainly deserves it. [But] will we [be] better off for having put McVeigh to death? Most of the classic arguments against the death penalty come down to asking whether a society promotes respect for human life by a system of punishment that involves taking the life of a killer, even a mass killer. [But] does society's decision to take his life allow McVeigh to paint himself -- in his own eyes, if in the eyes of few others -- as a martyr? Does capital punishment become, in such cases, exactly the opposite of a deterrent?"

He adds: "Timothy McVeigh [may] deserve to die. But will our society ennoble itself by putting him to death? If we were sure of the answer, we would have fewer qualms about putting his execution on television for all to see."


An editorial in the "New York Times" says the U.S. Navy's investigation into February's collision of an American submarine with a Japanese vessel, is "likely to end on a premature and unsatisfactory note," with a reprimand, rather than a court-martial, for the submarine's skipper, Scott Waddle. The paper says: "Nine [Japanese] were killed in the accident. According to testimony presented to the court of inquiry, the operations of the submarine [were] riddled with mistakes and violations of safety rules. Commander Waddle himself testified that he had cut short or omitted several safety precautions, failed to reassign duties to compensate for the absence of a third of his normal crew, and rushed the periscope search conducted just before the surfacing drill that caused the accident. [The] testimony [also] indicated that the only reason the ship went to sea that day was to entertain 16 civilian guests as part of a Navy program aimed at cultivating public good will. [Three] of the civilians were seated at controls on the submarine at the time of the collision."

It adds: "The fundamental issue here is accountability -- the commander's, his crew's, and the Navy's. A truncated inquiry cannot inspire the public confidence that would come with a full court-martial proceeding."


Commentator Hugo Young writes in the British "Guardian": "[Pope John Paul] has been in many ways disastrous. Yet in one way he is heroic. Viewed from close quarters he exudes, even for a liberal skeptic, the aura of a unique being. No one immersed in politics can escape the shock of witnessing the most unfashionable political figure in the world."

He continues: "The disasters John Paul has inflicted on the Catholic Church over 20 years in the Vatican would be hard to exaggerate. [High among them] is the church's treatment of women [and] a fearsome crusade against free speech. [North] America and Europe, Latin America and Asia, are littered with priests and thinkers terrorized by secret process into remaining silent under pain of excommunication."

He adds: "[This trend] has not done the church much good. Not merely is church attendance falling and the priesthood shrinking in Europe and North America, but Rome's former authority is being quietly rejected. [John Paul's era] proposes a degree of absolutism that even Catholics of impeccable loyalty and goodwill cannot reconcile with the modern world."