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Western Press Review: Middle East Crisis Demands New Approach

Prague, 21 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentaries in the Western press have focused on the escalating crisis in the Middle East, the need for new methods of dealing with the conflict, and the present and future role of the United States. Other issues addressed include efforts to impose so-called smart sanctions on Iraq and European-U.S. relations.


In a commentary for "The Washington Post," Dennis Ross, former special Middle East coordinator under U.S. President Bill Clinton, considers the motives behind the recent actions of Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat he writes: "I am certain he will never initiate, only respond. [He] will let the situation deteriorate in the hope that eventually the international community will have to intervene. As for [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon," Ross continues, "he wants to make a point: Violence doesn't pay and will not work. [He] has no interest in a third party 'rescue,' but he could accept an initiative that did not reward Palestinian violence." Under such circumstances, he says, "[the] American administration is bound to come under increasing pressure to do something."

Ross adds that "Negotiations cannot work in an environment of violence," and suggests that all sides involved must adopt a different approach to the crisis. He continues: "The Israelis, too, have responsibilities in this new code of behavior. Their economic and military siege must end. [Just] as Palestinians need to cease constantly promoting grievance, so should the Israelis avoid acts that create grievance." In conclusion, Ross suggests that the United States should propose a package to both sides and attach a time line to particular steps. "Too often," Ross adds, "[the] Unites States has shied away from publicly pointing the finger. A new administration [should] be prepared to make clear that it is serious about creating a different environment."


In a related editorial, "The Wall Street Journal Europe" suggests that a hands-off policy is the wisest policy. The Middle East crisis is described as "a situation in which there's nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, from meddling. [One] of the under-appreciated ironies of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that the more the outside world chooses to 'care,' the worse matters tend to become."

The result of the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of the past several years, the paper writes, has been that "U.S. leverage over the Palestinians has vanished and Arab-Israeli relations went from hopeful to troubled to what we have now. Nor have matters been helped by the indignant posturing of European politicians against Israel -- most recently with the threat of economic sanctions."

The paper concludes: "The only likely way in which the violence is going to end is if Israel brings it to an end. [Israel] will have to use force -- 'disproportionate' force, if necessary -- to unseat the Palestinian leadership. [Harsh] as this scenario may sound," the paper continues, "it would bring the violence to an end and make an equitable negotiated settlement possible."


In an article in "The Washington Post," correspondent Lee Hockstader observes that while Arafat is leaning towards the "hope that the violence will compel the West to organize an international intervention on behalf of the Palestinians, [U.S.] influence with Palestinians and Israelis is at a low ebb." The new American administration has sought to retain a certain distance from the conflict and to place it in a broader regional perspective. To Palestinians, Hockstader writes, "the new U.S. policy amounts to a green light for aggression by Mr. Sharon and the Israeli army." He characterizes the current U.S. approach as marked by "hesitation and trepidation, and a conviction that the odds are stacked in favor of more violence."


Two commentaries in the German press give a skeptical evaluation of the situation in the Middle East. An editorial in today's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," entitled "Israel is Bombing its Way into Isolation," says: "The violence in the Middle East is not diminishing -- on the contrary, no end [to the conflict] is in sight." Although the paper says that it is unclear to this day what prompted the hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians to again flare up so intensely, it goes on to blame Sharon for his vain promises of peace. "How naive must Sharon be to believe he can bomb the Palestinians to reason? Unlike the Israelis they have nothing to lose."

The commentary concludes that "Sharon's sole achievement" is "to force Israel into foreign policy isolation. The declaration of a boycott by the Arab states, including Egypt and Jordan, which have signed peace agreements with Israel, is tantamount to a catastrophe. Sharon is playing straight into the hands of radical Islam organizations: The more unrelenting his attacks, the more presentable Palestinian hate [becomes]."


In the "Frankfurter Rundschau," Inge Guenther also sees no prospects for peace in the Middle East. Violence is increasing while "the world looks on with bemusement, merely uttering expressions of alarm and urgent appeals for reason, which have never made a significant impression on parties to a war."

More critical voices are being raised in the UN; Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the use of excessive force by the Israelis against the Palestinians. But the commentary concludes: "In the event of a desire to truly end the conflict it is imperative to bear in mind the core of the conflict -- the occupation [of the Gaza Strip and West Bank]. An end to the building of settlements, as recommended in the report by [former U.S. Senator George] Mitchell, constitutes a minimum. Without this, there is no way of calming the situation."


An editorial today in "The New York Times" looks at U.S. opposition to the creation of an international criminal court. Instead of making futile attempts to block other nations from ratifying the treaty, the Bush administration "would better serve American interests by trying to change the provisions of the court it considers harmful." While opponents of the court would like "an ironclad guarantee that the court would never try an American," the paper writes, "[the court] already has numerous safeguards to ensure that it only deals with the most serious cases, is staffed by respectable and reasonable judges, and would take jurisdiction of a case only after a suspect's own national court system had exhausted its own options."

The paper concludes that "[the] international criminal court is going to be a reality. If the Bush administration feels the safeguards protecting Americans from show trials are inadequate, it should try to strengthen them, not waste global influence in a futile attempt to prevent the court's establishment."


In his contribution to "The New York Times," Michael Elliot, editor-at-large of "Time" magazine, analyzes the recent shift in European-U.S. relations, and looks ahead to the EU and the U.S. acting as equal partners on the world stage. Elliot notes that for the past 50 years, including the Clinton administration, U.S. foreign policy has encouraged "the federation of Europe," and "greater European economic and political unity," so that Europe would become "more ambitious and assist the Americans in shouldering economic and military burdens around the world." National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Elliot adds, "[looks] forward to a day when America could palm off peacekeeping activities in places such as the Balkans to a European force."

The hitch in seeking such a redistribution of global influence, Elliot notes, "isn't that it threatens American interests. It is that, too often, the Europeans talk the talk but won't walk the walk; that they never seem willing to spend money beefing up their defense establishments to meet the ambitions of their rhetoric."

Elliot acknowledges that some in Washington believe that international security is best served by recognition of America's continuing leadership role. [But] at some point in this century," he adds, "Americans are going to look for allies with whom they can genuinely share the burden of securing global peace and prosperity."


Other commentaries focus on new approaches towards sanctions on Iraq. An editorial in "The New York Times" states that the realization that the international trade embargo "has become increasingly untenable" has paved the way for what the paper calls a "reasonable narrowing of sanctions to bar the shipment of arms and weapons-related material to Saddam Hussein's regime," while allowing Iraq "to import whatever nonmilitary goods it wished, effectively ending the embargo on civilian commodities."

In return for the relaxation of these restrictions, Saddam Hussein would have to allow the UN to resume weapons inspections, a condition he is unlikely to accept, the paper writes, "unless he is convinced that the Security Council is united in its determination to maintain an arms embargo and will not set aside the broader trade restrictions until he lets inspectors back into Iraq to monitor weapons programs." The paper adds: "There will be no hope of obtaining his agreement if France, Russia, and China remain wobbly [on this issue]."


An editorial in the "Chicago Tribune" also addresses the issue of sanctions, calling the proposed British-U.S. resolution to end the trade embargo "a long-overdue concession to reality." The paper writes that "an embargo on arms, backed by the threat of massive retaliation [ought] to be enough," in order to prevent Iraq from acquiring and using the means to threaten its neighbors. Even if the resolution passes, the paper adds, it will not address "possibly the most dangerous aspect of the Anglo-American relationship with Iraq: The two no-fly zones that the U.S. and Britain declared."

For now, the paper concludes, "it is auspicious that Britain and the U.S. have found the good sense and the gumption to back away from the ruinous embargo." It adds: "Too bad it took so many years -- and so many lives."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this press review)