Prague, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today looks at the escalating Middle East crisis on the eve of the two-day Arab League summit in Beirut, which is expected to focus largely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other comment pieces look at aid strategies in the wake of last week's UN development conference in Monterrey, NATO expansion, and how best to deal with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Israel is expected to decide today whether to suspend Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's confinement in Ramallah to allow him to attend the two-day Arab League summit beginning tomorrow in Beirut. An editorial in "The New York Times" says, "bizarre and frustrating as this may be, letting [Arafat] go is the smart thing to do."
"For most Arabs," the paper continues, "Mr. Arafat remains the living embodiment of the Palestinian national cause. For the leaders of the Arab world to make a significant shift in their approach to the Palestinian question without having him there -- especially if his way was blocked by Israeli tanks -- may be politically untenable."
Furthermore, the "Times" adds, Arafat's absence would only provide Arab leaders with "one more excuse" not to discuss the "still-radical" peace proposal put forward by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah -- normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for the return of Arab land captured in 1967.
The U.S. administration, the paper says, is right to press Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to allow the Palestinian leader free passage to the summit. "It doubtless seems bizarre to [Sharon] that 20 years after sending the Israeli army to the edge of Beirut to force Yasser Arafat out, he is now expected to let Mr. Arafat return there to be toasted by Arab leaders," the paper says.
But having failed in his year in office to find a resolution to the seemingly endless cycle of Mideast violence, the paper adds, Sharon "must do everything he can to encourage and promote the gestures and substance of peace. Permitting Mr. Arafat to go to Beirut would be just such a gesture."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
"Before the Oslo peace accords of 1993, suicide bombing was a practice almost unheard of among Palestinians," columnist Charles Krauthammer writes in "The Washington Post" today. Now, however, "a mother appears on videotape proudly sending her 18-year-old to his death just so he can kill as many Jews as possible." The events of 11 September have awakened the United States to the reality of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, Krauthammer writes. But the U.S. still has yet to understand "how a similar campaign of hate has laid the groundwork for the orgy of murder-suicide the Palestinians are now engaged in."
The eight years of the Oslo peace process, Krauthammer writes, marked the most conciliatory era in Israel's history toward the Palestinians. Why, then, the advent of suicide bombing? Krauthammer says the answer lies with Yasser Arafat's state-controlled "television, newspapers, and clerics, [which have all] inculcated an anti-Semitism unmatched in virulence since Nazi Germany."
"Just as Osama bin Laden spent the '90s indoctrinating and infiltrating in preparation for murder, Arafat raised an entire generation schooled in hatred of the 'Judeo-Nazis.' This indoctrination goes far beyond expunging Israel, literally, from Palestinian maps. It goes far beyond denying, indeed ridiculing, the Holocaust as a Jewish fantasy. It consists of the rawest incitement to murder."
"A precondition for peace is to prepare your people for peace," Krauthammer writes. "[But] while Israeli leaders [were] preparing their people for peace" -- most recently with Ehud Barak's Camp David peace offer in July 2000 -- "Arafat was preparing his people for war. [And] how he has succeeded."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
An editorial in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" looks at the two-day gathering of prime ministers from the "Vilnius 10" group of NATO hopefuls (Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia, which is not a formal candidate), which ends today in Bucharest. The meeting is the candidate countries' last chance to gather before NATO's November summit in Prague.
The so-called "Spring of New Allies" summit was given a boost yesterday when U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Washington is seeking "the most robust possible" enlargement of the alliance at the Prague summit. This, the paper notes, is the clearest sign yet that the United States is "seriously" considering allowing a number of the postcommunist candidates the chance to join NATO.
But this apparent enthusiasm, the paper notes, makes even more pressing the question of "what the value of this 'new NATO'" will be. The events of the past few months -- most notably the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, where NATO is playing a limited role -- have only served to spotlight the dwindling military significance of the alliance. But for the nations striving for entry, the paper writes, NATO membership remains an important security goal -- even if the new NATO, compared to the muscle of its glory days, is nothing more than a "consolation prize."
With NATO membership of the Baltic states and Slovenia "all but guaranteed," former U.S. foreign policy officials Mark Brzezinski and Tom Walls write in Britain's "Financial Times," the alliance's southern dimension -- Romania and Bulgaria -- are "the next order of business."
NATO's expansion into Southeastern Europe, they write, "would offer the trans-Atlantic alliance the prospect of making progress in three priority areas: enhancing regional security, promoting stability and democracy, and fostering growth and integration."
The largest and most populous of the NATO candidates, the authors add, Romania and Bulgaria have already demonstrated their loyalty in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as in the war against terrorism, to which they have contributed security troops, military aircraft, and overflight support. They would also form a bulwark against the Black Sea region and strengthen stability and democracy building in the region.
Finally, the authors say, including Romania and Bulgaria in the next round of NATO expansion "would enable the alliance to foster growth and integration in what has so far been the missing piece of the alliance's European jigsaw. NATO enlargement has stabilized the economic environment in new members states (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) and created opportunities for European and U.S. companies."
Southeastern Europe, they conclude, "is ripe for the same NATO-driven growth."
"The Kremlin should be grateful to be tolerated as Washington's partner, not only as a guest at a Texas barbecue," writes Michael Stuermer in a commentary in today's "Die Welt." Looking at the foreign policy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has allied himself with the United States despite heated resistance from many in the country's military elite, Stuermer writes the Russian leader is, ultimately, a pragmatist.
A native of Russia's "window to the West," St. Petersburg, Putin has always understood the importance of foreign allies. Stuermer writes that he also knows his country is too weak economically to engage in an arms race, particularly as problems like the war in Chechnya and unrest in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge mount at home. Therefore, the recent concessions by the Russians -- in agreeing to allow the U.S. to store, rather than destroy, a number of its decommissioned nuclear missiles -- were only a matter of time, he writes.
In return, Stuermer writes, the West must extend its support to Russia -- not out of altruism but out of enlightened self-defense. To pretend that Russia is impotent, he says, is to ignore historic reality.
If the West turns its back on Russia, he concludes, it should be prepared to face the consequences. "The day of reckoning is bound to come one day," he writes.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
"The New York Times" columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests a particularly American way to secure the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein: Sue him.
Kristof elaborates: "The United States should launch an effort to prosecute Saddam for crimes against humanity. This would destabilize his regime at home, encourage more defections of Iraqi officials and military officers, and increase the prospect of a coup that, in the best-case scenario, would render an invasion unnecessary."
The idea, he notes, is not new. Citing Iraq expert Kanan Makiya, Kristof says the best way to topple an Iraqi leader is to make him lose face. With this in mind, he says, "a drive to indict Saddam for genocide against the Kurds, along with other crimes, suggesting that he will end his days in a prison cell, will humiliate him in a similar way, squeezing him and encouraging those around him to look for an exit while there is still time."
Kristof says the U.S. State Department has already begun building a legal case against Saddam, but on the assumption that prosecution would begin only once the Iraqi leader was in custody -- not before -- in order to protect U.S. military options in Iraq. This is unnecessarily cautious, Kristof says, citing a famous precedent: "In Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic was indicted when he was still in power, in 1999. The indictment was one factor that helped result in his ouster from power in 2000. And in 2001 he was sent to The Hague for trial."
In short, Kristof writes, "firing lawyers at Saddam would bolster [U.S.] military options, not weaken them."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
"Last week the rich world promised to bolster aid for poor countries," columnist Sebastian Mallaby writes in today's "The Washington Post," referring to last week's UN development conference in Monterrey, Mexico. "Last week, the same rich world [also] announced it wouldn't expand the peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan" beyond the capital, Kabul, and possibly beyond the International Security Assistance Force's six-month mandate.
This, Mallaby writes, "means that even as they convened an aid summit meeting in Mexico, world leaders may have doomed the $4.5 billion Afghan effort that was the fruit of their last aid summit meeting, held two months ago in Tokyo."
"If thousands of millions flow to [Afghanistan] in the absence of stability and the rule of law, the main beneficiaries will be the warlords. [U.S. President George W.] Bush could have escaped this dilemma if he had backed an expanded peacekeeping operation for Afghanistan -- if he had resolved to impose the order necessary for development to become possible. But last week the president declined to do that, so the $4.5 billion pledged to Afghanistan will probably achieve little."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)