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Western Press Review: From Middle East And Central Asia To Shanghai

Prague, 18 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In today's commentaries in the Western press, attention focuses once again on Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the Middle East and yesterday's assassination of a nationalist Israeli minister. Other issues include the role of Central Asia in the campaign against terror, Iraq's possible role in the 11 September events, and U.S. President George W. Bush's summit with Asian leaders in Shanghai.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Wolfgang Guenter Lerch says yesterday's assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rechavam Zeevi "has brought to an end, for the time being, the recent attempts to pull together the threads of dialogue, and banished any new visions of peace" in the Middle East. He notes that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon laid responsibility for the killing on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and has broken off all contact with the Palestinian Authority until the perpetrators are apprehended and put on trial. But, Lerch says, "It is hardly conceivable that the Palestinian leader will be able to do so without jeopardizing his own position."

He continues, "[The outlook for the Mideast peace process] is dismal, and the blame for this lies with both sides." But he adds that it is "inconceivable" that all diplomatic efforts will be suspended. He concludes: "Some conflicts, rather than being resolved, are simply 'dealt with' for decades. Sadly, the complexity and depth of the Middle East conflict means it will remain one of those kind of conflicts for a long time to come."


Dietrich Alexander, writing in "Die Welt," says that with yesterday's assassination of Rechavam Zeevi, "Israel has now experienced its 11 September" -- Palestinian extremists, in their fight against Israel, have crossed the line. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon expressed this dispassionate and yet frightful idea in a single sentence: "As of today, everything is different, exactly as [U.S.] President Bush said following 11 September."

Now, Alexander writes, all hope has evaporated of reestablishing a dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians. Sharon will reject any such advances, Alexander writes, adding, "Who would blame him after this murder?" But he says Sharon is careful to make a distinction between reaching a peace with the Palestinian people and reaching one with "terror." By making this difference clear, Alexander says, Sharon may be indicating that in spite of this murder, there will not be an end to the hope for a negotiated peace. But he says that not even Israel's less-aggressive foreign minister, Shimon Peres, is talking of resuming a dialogue. Alexander concludes: "[Zeevi's] assassination has buried the beginnings of a relaxing of tensions, and it calls for a sharper reaction."


A "Financial Times" editorial says Zeevi's murder "is likely to provoke an Israeli retaliation, inflaming an already explosive situation." It also notes that this could cause trouble for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition "by undermining an already fragile coalition" of moderate Arab states.

But, the paper says, "The fallout from Wednesday's assassination should not be confused with the war against terror, despite the Israeli government's attempt to portray all its military actions as a response to terrorism. It is part of the vicious cycle of reaction and counter-reaction that has characterized the conflict since the Palestinian uprising erupted more than a year ago."

Instead, says the paper, "the call for restraint now should be reinforced. [The] U.S. should attempt to contain Mr. Sharon's attempt to crush the uprising by force and prevent a further escalation following the latest killing." This restraint, the paper says, "would help to break the cycle of violence and would serve Israel's best interests."


An editorial in the "Los Angeles Times" says that now, as the U.S. pursues its broad campaign against terrorism, it is especially important to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The paper says: "Acutely aware that moderate Arab states' backing of the anti-terrorism coalition is precarious, the U.S. is preparing a new round of peace proposals."

The paper says that in the wake of 11 September, "hawkish Israeli politicians seemed to assume that the U.S.-led war on terrorism would give them a green light to crush the Palestinians." But, to the contrary, "Arafat has explicitly attacked [prime suspect] Osama bin Laden's claim to represent the Palestinians, decried terrorism and urged a resumption of peace talks." The editorial continues: "[Arafat's] grip on power is tenuous, but he remains the only Palestinian with whom Israel could reach some kind of lasting truce. Just as [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is probably the only Israeli who could implement it."

The paper says both sides, with the aid of the U.S., should use this moment to resume discussions. To do otherwise, it says, "would be to utterly cede the initiative to Islamic radicals who are seizing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to inflame the Arab world."


A "Stratfor" analysis says that Uzbekistan's goal of establishing regional dominance in Central Asia will be helped by the U.S. presence now based there for its operations in the war against terrorism: "Uzbekistan is Central Asia's largest, richest and most populous state, and for 10 years, it has sought to build a regional hegemony. None of its neighbors can match the country's economic, military or diplomatic superiority, and as long as it doesn't try to take control of the Russian-dominated oil fields in Kazakhstan, even Moscow is largely content" to let Uzbekistan exercise control in the Central Asian region. But Uzbekistan's internal political and economic weaknesses will prevent it from truly achieving the dominance it seeks, "Stratfor" says. President Islam Karimov has strangled economic reform and his government has no staying power.

In addition, Russia will act as a political counterweight. "Stratfor" writes: "Russia has and will again take steps to mitigate Uzbekistan's influence. [The] country is so politically sterile -- and centered around Karimov personally -- that should anything happen to him, Uzbekistan would almost certainly fall into chaos and under Moscow's control. [The] bottom line is that although the United States certainly needs Uzbekistan and wants it to remain independent from Russia, U.S. forces will eventually leave. Once that happens, Russia's power and importance to the United States will more likely make Moscow, not Tashkent, the region's dominant force."


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Central Asian affairs analyst Kathleen Collins says that even as the antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan continue, the Western powers should be preparing for a potentially larger problem. She writes: "Afghanistan is surrounded by weak states, and a durable peace in Central Asia must contain not only the conflict within Afghanistan but also bolster that country's faltering neighbors, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The U.S. end game must therefore include long-term policies that promote stable democracies and economic prosperity." Collins says that, as a direct result of the U.S.-led Afghanistan campaign, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan may see Taliban or pro-Taliban groups crossing their borders. Retaliatory actions by the Taliban for supporting the U.S. and an influx of Afghan refugees may further destabilize these nations.

To prevent the resulting instability, she writes, "the U.S. needs nothing less than a Marshall Plan to spur economic growth in Central Asia." Food shortages, drought, human rights abuses, and a lack of education or employment have plagued the region for decades. Preempting further humanitarian crises and potential state collapse in the region, she says, also bodes well for better relations with the Islamic world. And constraining Russian hegemony should continue to be a U.S. strategic objective. Collins writes: "The U.S. left much unfinished business in Afghanistan during and after the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war. This time America must be prepared for a long and relentless campaign, not only against terrorism but for peace and democracy as well."


A contribution by R. James Woolsey to "The Wall Street Journal Europe" considers the possibility of Iraqi involvement in the events of 11 September. He says, "There are rising doubts that even a victory in Afghanistan, and even the capture or death of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, will solve the problem. [There] are substantial and growing indications that a state may, behind the scenes, be involved in the attacks."

Woolsey adds that "the degree of complexity and the sophistication of the attacks" suggest enough indications of possible state involvement for the government to be "carefully and vigorously investigating." The most likely state to be involved, he adds, is Iraq. But he notes that U.S. officials seem careful to dismiss any indication of Iraqi involvement. A thorough search for an involved state, he says, "presents two PR risks, neither attractive. If you find no state actor, there might be the appearance of an investigative failure. If, on the other hand, you find that a state was involved, you might then risk confrontation, even conflict, and possibly body bags on the evening news."

Woolsey continues: "The decision whether to move against Iraq after Afghanistan will be one of the most difficult and important decisions any American president has ever made. It is much harder than deciding, even in very difficult circumstances, whether to confront a clear enemy when there is no alternative."


An editorial in "The New York Times" looks at some of the political trade-offs likely to take place at the Shanghai summit, which begins today. The paper says that U.S. President Bush should use this meeting to clarify what help other nations are willing to give in the campaign against terror and what they expect in return. The editorial notes that China has shown strong support for the antiterrorism campaign and has encouraged Pakistan to also stand with the U.S. In return, it says, China "seems to expect America and other countries to accept its mischaracterizations of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang as terrorists. Mr. Bush should firmly decline."

Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin secured the cooperation of Central Asian nations in the U.S.-led campaign. He then seemed to expect less-stringent condemnation of his policies in Chechnya. Bush, the paper says, should not agree to this either. Missile defense also remains a point of contention, but one on which compromise is possible. If the two countries can agree to cooperate on Osama bin Laden, the paper says, they should be able to work out ways to get over their differences.

The editorial concludes: "Mr. Bush will not find uniform support for all his anti-terrorism policies among the leaders in Shanghai. But if he can mobilize a shared sense of outrage and a recognition that terrorism is the common enemy of all decent societies, his time will be well spent."


In France's "Le Monde," Patrice de Beer says that the U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan seem part of a vast campaign that seems similar to a new Cold War. While U.S. officials focus on bombing the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's camps, strategists in Washington are already working on phase two of the antiterrorist campaign. "Washington has never hidden that this mission would exceed the initial Afghan objective," says de Beer, noting that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has already used the Cold War analogy to describe the campaign. De Beer quotes a former U.S. Security Council member as saying that the White House does not want to discuss phase two until phase one has ended in success -- at which point, the official says, "our attention will be turned elsewhere, to Iraq, even Iran, Syria, Sudan or Libya."

De Beer notes that several U.S. hard-liners didn't want to end the 1991 operations in Iraq before deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But the Bush administration is not in agreement on this subject, "particularly because of the impact that this bombing, with its procession of civilian victims, would have on the Arabian allies." De Beer adds that there has not been direct proof of Iraqi involvement, concluding that one already feels "a rising distrust among these same Arab allies who have been criticized for their lack of cooperation, particularly Saudi Arabia."

(Dora Slaba contributed to this review.)