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Western Press Review: Powell's Shuttle Diplomacy, Media Objectivity In Israel, And Afghanistan

Prague, 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press today and over the weekend continues to monitor events in the Middle East, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell travels to Lebanon and Syria today for more talks with regional leaders. Other topics addressed include maintaining media objectivity in an Israel at war; coming to terms with the massacre at Srebrenica; and Afghan casualties and resentment in the face of the ongoing U.S. military campaign.


An editorial in "The New York Times" discusses U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's ongoing shuttle diplomacy mission in the Middle East. The editorial notes that the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat, "yielded to American pressure" on 13 April and issued a condemnation of attacks on both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for his part, "stepped forward with an intriguing proposal that the United States play host to a new Middle East peace conference that would include Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and others."

The editorial says if such a meeting took place with the Saudi peace plan -- which would exchange all land seized by Israel in 1967 for a full "normalization" of relations with its Arab neighbors -- as its focus, "there might be room for real progress."

The editorial notes that the Israeli inner cabinet approved a plan yesterday calling for the establishment of buffer zones along the West Bank to prevent Palestinians from entering Israeli territory. But it says, "Such a border might make sense at some point, but real Israeli security will prove elusive until the occupation of the West Bank ends and Palestinians are permitted to rebuild their institutions and establish their state."


In "The Washington Post," staff writer Jackson Diehl says Tel Aviv's daily "Haaretz" is providing "tough wartime reporting" and "courageous commentary [at] a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks more tragic and more hopeless than it has in a generation."

Diehl says media everywhere have a hard time "maintaining a healthy independence from government during time of crisis and war." He notes the United States was no exception to this in the weeks after the 11 September attacks and during the ensuing military campaign in Afghanistan. But in Israel, he says, government pressure on the media is "crushing."

Diehl says the fundamental point "Haaretz" has been trying to make is that "Military operations cannot exist on their own without being backed, indeed being based, on a political horizon." The daily points out that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has no political plan other than to dismantle the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat.

Diehl says it is not easy to publish this sort of commentary and notes that "Haaretz" and its staff have received a deluge of threats and abuse. But yet, he says, "'Haaretz' offers a sign of how and why Israel will get out of this crisis: It is a democracy, and in a vigorous democracy with a real free press, bad policies sooner or later yield to reason."


An analysis in the "Los Angeles Times" by David Zucchino in Gardez, Afghanistan, says Afghan civilians harbor much resentment toward the United States for its ongoing military campaign in the country, particularly in Pashtun-dominated areas where support for the Taliban -- also largely made up of Pashtuns -- was strongest.

Zucchino says some Afghans claim that U.S. air strikes "killed their relatives. Others claim their homes were destroyed by American bombs or missiles. Farmers complain that American soldiers have blocked access to their fields, ruining their spring planting season."

Even now that Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces are on the run, Zucchino says there is enough local sympathy for them that allows them "to feed and arm themselves while they regroup." Zucchino suggests that two incidents in particular have inspired Afghan anger. On 20 December, U.S. planes killed 50 to 60 people in a convoy in Paktia Province. Survivors said the victims were tribal elders headed to Kabul to see the inauguration of interim leader Hamid Karzai. The U.S. Pentagon claimed the dead were Taliban fighters.

A second incident on 6 March saw the deaths of 14 people, among them women and children, in a U.S. air strike on an Al-Qaeda convoy. The civilians were family members traveling with Al-Qaeda fighters.

Zucchino quotes an Afghan aid worker as saying that, although he and others are grateful to the Americans for the removal of the Taliban and foreign Al-Qaeda fighters, "the killing of innocents has filled everyone with anger."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" comments on the latest developments in Venezuela. The paper says few people in Venezuela know the direction of the current chaos. Weeks of strikes and strife caused President Caudillo Chavez to resign. As Chavez was driven from power, Venezuelan business leader Pedro Carmona announced he would lead a transitional government. Chavez -- fearing imprisonment -- was apparently headed for exile. Now, the paper says, the coup has turned into an anti-coup overnight, and with the assistance of the army and his supporters, Chavez has been reinstated as president.

Carmona is described in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" as an entrepreneur lacking democratic legitimacy, as his first measure included the dissolution of parliament, the highest courts, and other regime strongholds. It seems then that Chavez is the lesser of evils.

Granted, the newspaper says, constitutional rights are extremely relative as far as Chavez is concerned, yet the people still voted for him in the summer of 2000. The paper says it is up to the country's armed forces to help bring a halt to the feelings of anger and revenge in Venezuela.

But in the end, the commentary concludes, there is only one solution to the situation: elections.


In the British "The Guardian," Matthew Engel says that U.S. Secretary of State Powell's trip to the Mideast is being undermined by the U.S. administration's previous unwillingness to become involved in the region. Engel suggests Powell may be fighting a losing battle, and says U.S. President George W. Bush "has kept himself publicly -- and maybe privately -- disengaged from the issue all week." White House officials yesterday "maintained that distance by using the same standard diplomatic words -- such as 'useful' and 'constructive' -- to describe the Powell-Arafat talks as Mr. Powell's own entourage. They also made it clear that the secretary of state had 'maximum flexibility' and 'a broad mandate.'" Engel says, "In other words, he is on his own."

"The administration's earlier failings had set up the situation," Engel writes. "Suddenly, it was a big deal that a secretary of state was conducting talks that his predecessors, and even their presidents, used to undertake as a matter of routine." The Bush administration's earlier inaction has led to it now being "as constrained as the antagonists" in the drama, he says. "Any kind of tilt towards either side risks jeopardizing, in one way or another, its own declared major objective: the defeat of terrorism. The U.S. cannot be seen to condone suicide bombers," he says. But "it dare not antagonize Arab opinion more than it already has. A renewed attempt at disengagement would do both at once."


In France's daily "Liberation," Jacques Amalric asks what really took place at the Jenin refugee camp. Officially, he says, the Israeli Army states that Jenin was the site of a very fierce battle. And this seems plausible, since the army lost 23 of its own in the contest for the camp. But Amalric says if this is the truth, why is access to the camp forbidden to the United Nations, the Red Cross, and other humanitarian organizations? He notes that journalists are also forbidden from entering the area, except one brief visit organized by the army. Amalric says Israel would have everything to gain by revealing what took place at Jenin, in order to counter Palestinian charges of a massacre. He notes that on 12 April an army spokesmen talked of 500 casualties at the camp. But yesterday morning, the Israeli Army referred to only "about a dozen" deaths. Amalric says that such widely disparate numbers naturally lead to questions. And how can one reject as pure propaganda -- without examination -- the claims of summary executions, the refusal of assistance to the wounded, and numerous civilian deaths? he asks. Amalric says claims of a massacre might have been laid to rest if Israel had allowed a little more transparency.


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" looks at the Middle East conflict in light of U.S. Secretary of State Powell's mediation mission between Israel and Palestine, which seeks -- in the words of the commentary -- to "make the impossible possible." Israeli Prime Minister Sharon grows weary when confronted with Palestinian leader Arafat's demand for a withdrawal of Israeli troops. Israel will not make a retreat at Palestine's behest and for this very reason the withdrawal will not come quickly, says the paper.

The editorial says there is no trusting Arafat's "half-hearted" condemnation of Palestinian acts of terrorism. Such proclamations might be sufficient for Powell to be prepared to talk to Arafat, but Israel is not impressed, it says.

The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says the Powell-Arafat meeting has been only a tiny step forward in the negotiations. "Realists," it says, "are hoping for a cease-fire, while only hopeless idealists are actually forging plans for peace."


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" says there are two points "that offer the hope of an ultimate settlement" in the Middle East. One, it says, "is that the shape of an eventual settlement is hardly in dispute. The Saudi peace plan and the German plan likely to be endorsed by European Union foreign ministers today are all versions with minor variations of the schemes discussed at Camp David and Taba. There should be an Israeli state and a Palestinian state in the Holy Land, their security guaranteed by each other and the international community.

"While the Israeli government felt justified in acting against Palestinian terrorism when Mr. Arafat did not, even Mr. Sharon must recognize that there must be a political solution, which cannot be imposed by force." The paper says the other point is that the U.S. must remain engaged in the process. The Bush administration, it says, "has not been even-handed, not least in his attitude to United Nations resolutions against Iraq and Israel. But he has now demanded Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian territories." While it will be difficult to get Sharon to take action on this point, says the editorial, at least Secretary of State Powell is in the region trying to bring about a solution.


Ian Black of "The Guardian" writes on the massacre at Srebrenica in light of a report released last week by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. The report "condemned Dutch politicians for combining 'humanitarian motivation and political ambition' to give their soldiers a 'mission impossible' in Srebrenica," where up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed by Serb forces in 1995. The lightly armed peacekeepers "had been inadequately trained, had no clear mandate and their commanders failed to investigate reports of mass killings of Muslim civilians. Intelligence resources were non-existent."

The report has been criticized by survivors of the massacre and others as a "whitewash that spread the blame too wide and reached only weak conclusions," says Black. He adds that the report may be "unsatisfactory and inconclusive," but it is also "a poignant and timely reminder of the need -- as the world agonizes over the crisis in the Middle East -- to understand complex conflicts and forge coherent policies, and not fall victim to the syndrome that 'something must be done,' however effective it is."

Black says: "It took the full horror of Srebrenica to galvanize the international community into adopting more determined policies in Bosnia. NATO eventually bombed the Serbs into a cease-fire, which shortly afterwards brought a peace agreement. And that led, in turn, to the more robust response when the Kosovo crisis [erupted] -- and which finally brought [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic to book in The Hague."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)