Prague, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press today focuses once again on the Middle East, as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat emerges after a 34-day siege of his Ramallah headquarters by Israeli forces and the UN calls off a fact-finding mission to the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin. Russia's role in NATO is also discussed, as are U.S.-EU relations, ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, and formulating a common European foreign policy.
THE WASHINGTON POST:
In a contribution to "The Washington Post," "International Herald Tribune" executive editor David Ignatius discusses the outcome of the siege of Ramallah. The task of measuring its effects, he says, is complicated by the fact that it's still not clear what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was trying to accomplish by besieging the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, or by "systematically destroying the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure -- including the basic records and files necessary for social services and the antiterrorist efforts the Israelis have demanded."
But whatever Sharon's strategy, Ignatius says the Israeli leader did accomplish one thing: He demonstrated that Israelis "cannot be terrified by suicide bombers into giving up their state."
As for the Palestinians, Ignatius says perhaps there is also a glimmer of hope in a renewed belief "that they're better off returning to the bargaining table than blowing themselves up." Sharon's assault also helped revive the popularity of Arafat, whom Ignatius calls "a leader whose incompetence and corruption had rightly condemned him to irrelevance." But he says Sharon's "attempt to destroy Arafat has restored his mystique among ordinary Palestinians."
A powerless and defeated Arafat could never make peace, says Ignatius, but perhaps Arafat's renewed clout will now make that possible. And the Palestinians, he says, "will be able to make peace only if they feel a sense of dignity." The end of the siege may give the Palestinians pride that they survived the onslaught, and improve the chances for peace.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" today says that while "peace is not at hand in the Middle East," freeing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, combined with "the withdrawal of most Israeli forces from Palestinian cities, the disruption of the Palestinian terror campaign, and the deepening American-Saudi commitment to a peace offensive all indicate that this is a pivotal moment."
"Each side owes itself a frank assessment," the paper writes. "After 19 months of shooting, suicide bombing and pathological promotion among its youth of 'martyrdom,' the Palestinian nation is hurting more than ever and appears no closer to realizing its legitimate dream of free, independent statehood. Israel, having destroyed large chunks of the Palestinian administrative infrastructure, still finds itself in a toxic occupation that guarantees its citizens no personal safety and its young men and women more army service defending ill-advised settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."
The paper notes that popular majorities on both sides of the conflict agree that the future should see two states, existing side by side. "Yet large majorities in both camps also favor the most aggressive short-term tactics -- large-scale military invasion on the part of Israelis, suicide bombings by Palestinians. Israeli and Palestinian leaders have ridden the short-term anger to renewed popularity."
But "The New York Times" says leadership means more than this: "In this case, it means looking beyond the rage of your own people."
An editorial comment in the Britain's "The Guardian" says a "problematic evolution" is under way in Afghanistan as the military campaign begun last October is transformed into "seemingly endless, hit-and-miss, search-and-destroy missions." It says a war "that began with high-flying cruise missiles and B-52 bombers has inevitably boiled down to ground combat."
But the paper says while ground forces were initially supplied by the Northern Alliance and then by other regional or ethnic factions, the U.S. administration's "principal proxy force" in Afghanistan "is now none other than the British Army." "Since 1,700 crack British combat soldiers deployed last month, the British proxy role has rapidly expanded. Operation Snipe, now under way, is in theory a coalition mission. But at ground level, it is an overwhelmingly British operation with U.S. air cover [and] limited U.S. ground back-up."
The editorial says that British troops are now taking on the greater part "of the dangerous, up-close work in America's war, though the Pentagon will not admit it." Increasingly, it says, "this will help the U.S. to shift resources elsewhere, say toward Iraq." "The Guardian" concludes that Britain "is assuming a central role in a war it did not start, does not direct, and cannot finish."
In the "Frankfurter Rundschau," Martin Winter discusses U.S.-EU relations following yesterday's annual summit in Washington. Winter says the U.S. and EU have never hit such a low in their relations at a time when cooperation is also so imperative. He adds that it would be a catastrophe if the two powers could not join forces in engaging in world issues.
Winter examines the growing trans-Atlantic mistrust and says that currently, frictions are increasing over the best method of approaching international terrorism -- but he adds that the sources of discontent run far deeper. He says the question is not how this partnership can be saved but what can replace it, in a world that has changed so radically after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of terrorist extremism. He says the U.S. is seeking a solution in its own strength while the Europeans stake their hopes on multilateralism.
Winter sees the two powers as "moving in different directions on central issues," and says the Middle East conflict "may prompt the U.S. to recognize that only a common effort can lead to positive results and the Europeans to realize that the complexity of an issue is no excuse for wavering. The only solution, he says, is for "the U.S. to be more European and the Europeans to become a little bit American."
An editorial in "The Times" of Britain says yesterday's EU-U.S. summit in Washington was "preceded by antagonism on both sides of the Atlantic. There continue to be public disputes on specific questions -- Iraq, the Middle East, and steel tariffs -- and the wider sense that Europe and the United States approach international affairs from different, incompatible, standpoints."
The paper says the perception of a hostile European approach regarding the United States stems from three sources. First, it says, "when EU leaders meet to frame a collective foreign policy, [they] often find that the only way they can secure such a vague consensus is to do so in opposition to something else, often America." The second factor is that "the rhetoric of European commissioners [who] are trying to carve out a role for themselves assumes disproportionate importance." Finally, the contentious words of politicians from some EU members eclipse the more measured statements from other EU nations.
"The Times" says these are setbacks that EU governments must address, and calls the trans-Atlantic conflict "unnecessary." Major European governments -- such as those of Britain, Italy, Spain, and Germany -- continue to enjoy beneficial relations with Washington. But in many ways, the paper says, what is being presented as common EU foreign policy is distorted by the interests of individual members.
An article in "The Economist" magazine this week says that although the dangers now facing both the U.S. and Europe are changing, the need for a collective defense has not. The NATO alliance, it says, must reinvent itself to deal with the new dangers, and its new framework must be ready by the November NATO summit in Prague.
"The Economist" notes that later this month, alliance foreign ministers will begin the debate about NATO's future, inviting Russia to join its discussions on issues of common concern. The ministers want a NATO that is more capable militarily, says the magazine. But willing this end is one thing, it remarks, willing the means is quite another. Even with the implementation of the anticipated EU rapid-reaction force, Europeans will be "woefully ill-equipped to march off on their own" into conflicts, writes "The Economist."
As the battle lines have moved beyond the heart of Europe, the NATO alliance no longer seems as important to America, the magazine says. If NATO is to take on new tasks, it will need to admit new members with strong capabilities. But bringing in new nations without sound consideration could weaken the alliance, it says.
"Unless Americans and Europeans can agree that [NATO] has useful jobs to do -- and then take the hard decisions on new capabilities and members -- the world's most successful military alliance might soon call it a day."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times," meanwhile, discusses the increasing cooperation between Russia and the NATO alliance. Moscow and the West, it says, are working their way toward a new relationship that can be described as NATO plus Russia. Such a partnership could help reinforce Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to reorient his foreign policy toward the United States and Europe. But "Russia is not yet ready for full military integration," says the paper. Thus, the current halfway arrangement "makes sense as an interim step."
Previously, NATO members would work out their positions on issues without Moscow and then "present fixed decisions to the Russian delegates. The new arrangement will let Russia participate in full discussions on a broad range of issues including coping with terrorism, managing regional crises, peacekeeping, missile defense, and search-and-rescue operations at sea." But the paper says what matters more than enumerating specific areas of cooperation is "the commitment of both sides to make this limited partnership work." If this will is present, it says, Russia-NATO cooperation can be expanded.
An editorial in France's daily "Le Monde" today discusses the referendum in Pakistan earlier this week (30 April), which approved a five-year extension of President Pervez Musharraf's regime with 97 percent of the vote. Since Musharraf took power in a military coup in October of 1999, the paper says, he has ruled by stifling any opposition, even if he leaves the press relatively free. It adds that he has done little to relieve the suffering of the great majority of Pakistan's 145 million citizens.
After the attacks of 11 September, the paper says Musharraf radically changed Pakistan's policies by allying himself with the West. He joined the fight against militant Islam and began to dismantle associations within Pakistan serving as a base for radical Islamic activists. For his efforts, Pakistan's debt was dropped and economic sanctions lifted, thus saving Pakistan "from the financial asphyxiation that threatened it."
"Le Monde" says this week's referendum highlights some of the more embarrassing aspects of Musharraf's regime. The regimes of two of Musharraf's dictatorial predecessors were also sanctioned by large majorities in a referendum, the paper notes. The 30 April vote appears to have been tarnished by various irregularities and voter abstention seems to have been massive. "Le Monde" says Musharraf must restore his credibility by guaranteeing that the general elections he has scheduled for October will be free and open -- unlike this week's referendum.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)