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Western Press Review: The Dutch Government Resigns, Italy's General Strike, Afghanistan, And The Mideast

Prague, 17 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western commentary in the media today looks at the resignation of Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok and his cabinet yesterday over the findings of a recent report on the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, in Bosnia; Italy's general strike and labor reforms; suicide-bombings, martyrdom and "the man on the street"; events in Afghanistan; and the situation in the Middle East.


An editorial in the "Financial Times" discusses the resignation yesterday of Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok and his cabinet over the findings of a recently released report blaming political and military leaders for the failure of Dutch peacekeepers to prevent the 1995 massacre of up to 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica, Bosnia.

The paper says the Dutch government "has finally done what no other Western government has had the courage to do: accept a share of responsibility for the bloodshed in the Bosnian wars of the 1990s." The paper calls the events at Srebrenica "the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War" and "a bloody stain on the recent history of the Netherlands."

The report, released in early April by the Netherlands Institute of War and Documentation, suggests the Dutch troops were given a weak mandate, lacked sufficient military capability, and did not have adequate intelligence on the ground. The editorial adds: "An overwhelming national consensus in favor of humanitarian intervention and a political desire to boost the country's prestige conspired to produce a mission that was disastrously ill-equipped and confused."

But it adds that other Western governments share the blame: "Mr. Kok carries with him the guilt not just of the Dutch but of many other Europeans shamed by their governments' inaction."


An editorial in the Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" also looks at the 11 July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Only now has this event been thoroughly investigated, which has led to the release of an investigative report that spreads the blame widely among Western political and military leaders. The report blames the Dutch UN peacekeeping force for being ill prepared and the victim of contradictory commands from their superiors.

The commentary calls the resignation yesterday of the prime minister and his cabinet "merely symbolic," a gesture recognizing that the policies of the time were ineffectual. Western governments in those days just did not want to believe that such a tragedy as Srebrenica was possible, says the paper.

As for the Dutch government, the commentary says Prime Minister Kok is not risking anything, since his administration is staying in office as an interim government until elections on 15 May. The editorial says that with new elections, "the cards will be shuffled again, regardless of Srebrenica."


An editorial in "The Irish Times" discusses yesterday's general strike in Italy, which brought millions of demonstrators into the streets in protest to labor market reforms. The paper says the demonstration was "a symbolic trial of strength and credibility" between right-leaning reformist Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Italy's powerful trade unions.

The unions believe the proposed reform, which would allow employers to dismiss workers more easily, would set an "unacceptable" precedent. Berlusconi believes the economic growth needed to fund broad-based economic changes has been, as the editorial puts it, "inhibited by the country's inflexible employment regulations. Employers are reluctant to hire more workers because they cannot get rid of them easily in a downturn."

The editorial says Berlusconi has not made sufficient progress in implementing his reform program. He has "found his way blocked in cutting taxation, reorganizing the public finances and investing in infrastructure by resistance from established interests."

The paper says Berlusconi needs "a partnership with the unions to achieve his wider program of change." Amendments to current labor regulations may be made through a compromise involving the creation of a state-funded unemployment plan. Unions "may be willing to accept such a solution if it increases their leverage in other areas."

The editorial concludes: "Mr. Berlusconi certainly needs to deliver in coming months if he is to retain credibility with his political base."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" discusses a recent statement made in the London-based "Al Majalla" weekly by Suha Arafat, wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in which she expressed support for suicide-bomber martyrdom operations by saying she would consider it an honor if a son of hers were to take part in such an operation.

The editorial suggests that such sentiments are shared by many throughout the Arab world. It says: "By now, it should be plainly evident how the Palestinian and Arab leadership nurture and politically try to profit from the culture of suicide attacks no matter how often Arafat disavows 'terror against civilians,' as he did again on Saturday [13 April]."

The paper suggests that it is not the leaders but average people who are suffering most from such sacrifices. It asks: "Whose children die when their leaders incite them to take their own lives and that of innocent Israelis? Certainly not the Arafats' or [Saudi Ambassador to London] Ghazi Algosaibi's."

The paper says it makes sense to recall a suggestion made by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who the paper says, "long ago pointed out that peace can't come to the Mideast until the Arabs love their children more than they hate Israelis."


In a contribution to "The New York Times," the Mideast correspondent for "The Economist" magazine, Max Rodenbeck, looks at media coverage of the Middle East conflict. He says never before "have ordinary Arabs so identified with the Palestinian tragedy as they do today," as graphic television images beam the violence into millions of Arab households, "increasing the sense of personal interest in the conflict."

He writes: "Some may dismiss such passions as the product of propaganda, and it is true that the region's news media are hardly beyond reproach. Hezbollah runs a technically impressive [satellite] channel that beams nonstop incitement.... [Even] Al Jazeera [stoops] to hyperbolic use of terms like genocide to describe Israel's iron-fisted methods."

Yet he says Arab coverage of the conflict is not much more one-sided than America's "gung-ho" coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, or Israel's own reporting on the intifada. He says most Tel Aviv editors seem to accept Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's assertion that the press's job is, in Sharon's words, "to give the nation pride and hope."

Rodenbeck says to some extent, it is the modernity of today's Arab media that fuels such passions. However, he says: "It does not really require subtle manipulation to frame the ongoing tragedy as an epic struggle of the weak against the strong. The imagery saturating Arab screens, of tanks crushing ambulances and helicopters rocketing refugee camps, is, alas, all too real."


Also in "The New York Times," syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman says, "This is not a time for some two-bit international conference" on the Middle East. He says U.S. President George W. Bush must "put everything on the table. [That] means laying down a clear American peace plan calling for a new UN mandate for the West Bank and Gaza to develop a new Palestinian Authority capable of ruling those areas; a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops [and] U.S. or NATO forces to cement the deal."

Friedman concludes: "Either we now go all the way toward peace and demand that every party step up to it -- Palestinians, Israelis and Arabs -- or they will keep going all the way the other way, blowing out one civilizational barrier after another..."


Belgium's daily "Le Soir" carries a piece discussing the second working session of the European Union's Convention on the Future of Europe, which took place on 15-16 April in Brussels.

The 15 EU nations and 13 candidates for membership specifically discussed whether to broaden the mandate of EU missions abroad or limit them. Several voices were raised in favor of at least formulating a common foreign policy, especially with a view to the EU's recent failure to play a significant mediating role in the Mideast after its delegation was not allowed to meet with the relevant leadership. The desire for concerted action regarding security and justice in areas such as fighting terrorism, human trafficking, and the protection of borders was also widely expressed.

"Le Soir" says no members sought to delegate more authority to EU institutions, as member states do not want to transfer any more national competence to the Union. It says a majority seemed to want the EU's spheres of competence to be limited to those areas expressly enumerated in treaties, with the rest remaining with the individual states.


An editorial in "The Times" of Britain says the mission of the 1,700 British Marines being deployed in Operation Ptarmigan in Afghanistan is achievable only if several essential conditions are observed.

"The first is that tactics, deployment and long-term aims should be kept under constant review. Secondly, Pakistan must do far more to seal off the border and close Al-Qaeda's escape routes to safe havens. Thirdly, the scope of the operation should be clear." It is Al-Qaeda fighters who are the main target, says the paper.

The final element of the strategy must be political, says "The Times." Former Afghan King Zahir Shah, due to return to the country tomorrow after 29 years in exile, "is 87 and frail. He has no intention of reclaiming his throne. But his return is intended to underpin legitimacy and democratic politics."

He will preside over the Loya Jirga, the gathering of tribal, religious, and political leaders that will draft a constitution, choose a successor to the interim government, and maintain "the delicate balance between groups and regions that is the only guarantee of future stability."

The paper concludes that Afghanistan's overall stability "is threatened by Al-Qaeda," and the British Marines must perform "a vital job in reducing the threat."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says the Bush administration is gambling with its credibility in its dealings in Afghanistan. The U.S. president's refusal to support the expansion of the international security force in Afghanistan may be hurting his credibility more than he realizes, says the paper.

Bush "has invested his credibility in the success of the interim administration led by Hamid Karzai and in the longer-term reconstruction plans that the United States has helped to craft." He "has staked his -- and America's -- prestige on replacing the despotic Taliban regime with something better. If he cannot make good on this promise, he can hardly expect anyone to believe that he will succeed in replacing Saddam Hussein with a more palatable Iraqi government."

But "The Washington Post" says that, so far, it is not clear that Afghanistan is headed for a better future. Threats to its stability and security from warlords, warring factions, a re-emerging heroine-poppy industry, apparent plots against peacekeeping forces, and the targeting of aid workers attest to the need for an expanded international security force.

Yet the U.S. administration insists a national Afghan force should do the job. The paper says, "The experience of building new security forces in other divided countries teaches that this is a multi-year project. In the meantime, there is no alternative to outside peacekeepers."

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