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Western Press Review: Sharon's Hard Line, Paksas's Surprise Victory, And Voluntary 'Regime Change'

Prague, 7 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Attention in the Western media turns once again to politics in the Middle East today, in the wake of a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 22 people and injured more than 100. New and deadly incursions by the Israeli army into Palestinian refugee camps have taken place in response. The Israeli government subsequently placed a travel ban on a Palestinian delegation headed to London for talks on peace efforts and reforms.

Other issues addressed today include the campaign for voluntary "regime change" in Iraq, choosing a policy course on North Korea, and the surprise outcome of Lithuania's presidential elections, where Rolandas Paksas won an unexpected victory over incumbent Valdas Adamkus.


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is hoping to convince Israeli moderates that, if he wins a second term in 28 January elections, he will "turn his attention to peacemaking with the Palestinians."

But those who hold such a "benign" view of the future "are profoundly out of touch with Israeli political realities," he says. Instead, "there is good reason to fear that the situation will only get worse if Sharon returns to power," says Siegman.

"Contrary to the image of moderation that he has so assiduously -- and effectively -- cultivated these past two years, he remains single-mindedly committed to preventing the emergence of a viable and independent Palestinian state. [Sharon's] overriding goal has been to assure so extensive an expansion of Jewish settlements and their supporting infrastructure -- highways, power grids, water sources -- as to make a Palestinian state a political and physical impossibility."

To this end, he has surrounded himself with like-minded hawks to run the security, military, and intelligence sectors in his administration. All of whom, Siegman says, "believe that Israel must avoid returning to a political process until Palestinians are totally defeated militarily.... [All] believe that it is only when Palestinians think and act like a defeated people that a political process can begin."


The leading editorial in Britain's "The Guardian" today says the decision by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to prohibit a Palestinian delegation from attending a Middle East peace conference in London next week is "foolish and self-defeating."

The decision allows Israel to be portrayed as "the main obstacle to reconciliation and progress." Moreover, the Sharon government is undermining "the efforts of those within the Palestinian leadership who recognize that internal reform is [necessary] for the creation of a viable Palestinian state."

By also preventing this week's meeting of the Palestinian central council, Israel's government "brings into question the sincerity of its demands for such reforms." The paper points out that the council was to discuss measures that could have begun a shift of power away from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which is something both Sharon and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both "fervently advocated."

Sharon and others within his government seem determined to dismiss all Palestinians as "terrorists," the paper says. But most Israelis, like most of the rest of the world, know that this depiction is "nonsense." The vast majority of Palestinians and Israelis "want political leaders with the courage and imagination to forge a path to peace and security founded on a just, lasting settlement. They want the end of extremism; they want the beginning of a future."

But what does Sharon want? the paper asks.


Several German papers today focus on the outcome of the 5 January presidential election in Lithuania, which resulted in a surprise victory for former Lithuanian Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, who defeated incumbent Valdas Adamkus by some 10 percent in the runoff vote.

The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," in a profile of the new president-elect, says the 46-year-old Paksas had the advantage of youth in the election campaign, while the 76-year-old Adamkus left a tired impression and seemed incapable of mobilizing support. Also, while Adamkus has, to his credit, secured his country's invitation to join NATO and the European Union, Paksas exuded more appeal by promising to fight crime and corruption.


In fact, says Reihard Veser in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," although the victory of the dark horse came as a surprise, Paksas was convinced from the beginning of the election campaign that he would come out on top. He managed to sway public opinion, because a vote for him actually represented a negative vote against the entire political class, which has earned a bad reputation.

Paksas won support by promising "to wield a strong hand in bringing law and order to the country." Veser adds, however, that Paksas will hardly be in a position to fulfill his promises, as the constitution does not empower the president to carry out such tasks.


Hannes Gamillscheg, writing in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," concurs with Veser's assessment. His commentary says the election results constitute a warning for European Union enthusiasts. The results demonstrate how unpredictable public opinion is and indicate a general mood of protest, which surfaces again and again in postcommunist countries.

Election campaign promises are more likely to arouse suspicion than hope, Gamillscheg says. He says that Paksas, who is now recommending a yes-vote in the upcoming EU referendum in Lithuania in May, may be disappointed by the results.


In "The Washington Post," David Ignatius says the U.S. administration is divided over whether engagement or confrontation is the best route to follow with North Korea. As a result, he says, the administration's rhetoric has become "disconnected from actions."

"The hawks' line is simple," Ignatius says. "The United States cannot reward Pyongyang's blatant cheating by making concessions." And North Korea may be a test of the new U.S. national security strategy unveiled by President George W. Bush last September, which advocated "first strikes against rogue states that sought to acquire nuclear weapons."

"So where's the preemptive attack?" Ignatius asks. "It appears to have been preempted, as rhetoric met realpolitik." The "unhappy fact" is that the United States "doesn't have good military options against Pyongyang," he says. The consequences of any U.S. attack "would be devastating losses for South Korea," a U.S. ally. North Korea is believed to have two or more nuclear bombs already, so the possibility of a devastating nuclear response also cannot be ruled out.

"The choice in dealing with North Korea is the same as it was the day Bush took office: diplomacy or confrontation." But Ignatius says the administration "delayed so long in framing its policy that both approaches are now far more difficult than they needed to be."


A "Stratfor" (Strategic Forecasting LLC) analysis today says attempts by a "loose coalition of Arab and European governments" -- including France, Germany, Turkey, and Iran -- "to convince Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to relinquish power voluntarily" are likely to fail. "These states are trying desperately to avoid a war that could fundamentally alter the political structure in the Middle East," it says.

But Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "will balk at the prospect of exile, and Washington doubtlessly would rule out any option that would leave it without a firm hand in Baghdad."

The loose European-Arab alliance is "working with Turkey and Iran in a shaky alliance, with the single goal of avoiding a war in Iraq." They believe that if the Iraqi leader can be convinced "to step aside and hand over power to a legitimate official -- who in turn works convincingly with the United Nations on weapons inspections -- the United States would find it difficult to attack Iraq unilaterally."

But the analysis says it is unlikely either Baghdad or Washington will cooperate. Iraq's Saddam Hussein "may prefer to take his chances in a war, since if exiled he would be vulnerable to assassination or prosecution for war crimes."

Washington, for its part, may be unwilling "to forego the strategic gains -- politically and in the energy sector -- that would come with occupying Iraq."


A piece in "The Boston Globe" by Cathy Young looks at the case of Russian Colonel Vladimir Budanov, who was recently acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity for the murder of an 18-year-old Chechen woman, Elza Kungaeva, whom Budanov had admitted to abducting, beating, and then strangling. A rape charge against Budanov was subsequently dropped.

Young remarks on the lack of press coverage or international outcry accompanying the case. She says the Budanov case "serves as a reminder of the double standards that persist in international public opinion. If an Israeli army colonel abducted, raped, and strangled a Palestinian woman, the case would likely send shock waves around the world."

Young says, "There is ample evidence that Russian forces in Chechnya have engaged in the systematic murder, rape, and looting of civilians." Yet there have been no international calls for action or boycotts of Russian interests.

On the same day of the Budanov verdict (31 December), Russia also announced it would not renew the mandate of the Chechnya mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Young says that now "there will be no more permanent international monitoring of any kind in Chechnya."

"In the post-Cold War era," she says, Russia "wants to be seen as a part of democratic Western civilization. Its actions, then, should be held to civilized standard -- a standard that, so far, they grievously fail to meet."


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," James Critchfield, a retired Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer who spent 10 years in post-World War II Germany, discusses some of the options for a postwar Iraq, if the United States launches a military offensive to topple the Iraqi leadership.

Any powers occupying Baghdad in a postwar scenario "must make it clear to Iraq's neighbors -- notably Iran and Turkey -- that meddling in Iraq's minorities will not be tolerated. Iraq should be preserved as a single state and, like Germany after World War II, evolve as a federation with a central government. From the start, the occupying powers must insist on a state in which citizens are Iraqis first and members of a minority second. This will be difficult but not impossible," he says.

Democratization "should start at the village level and move to the national level." Demilitarization must "concentrate on eliminating those in the Republican Guard who are guilty of crimes against humanity. Trials of indicted Iraqi war criminals should be open and in accord with international law." Critchfield says it will also be necessary "to rehabilitate politically acceptable civil servants, technicians, and professionals" to take part in a new regime.

Critchfield says postwar Germany and a possible postwar Iraq are not comparable in themselves. But the opportunity they both offer is for other nations concerned to take part in a "benevolent" rebuilding, and to help reintegrate them into the international community.


In Belgium's "Le Soir," staff writer Agnes Gorissen also discusses U.S. plans for a possible postwar Iraq. Reports have indicated that the United States is ready to mobilize 100,000 troops for a possible invasion. Members of U.S. special forces and the CIA have been in Iraq for the past four months.

Meanwhile, the United States considers an ambitious plan for democratizing a postwar Iraq. The U.S. Army would remain stationed in the country for at least 18 months to ensure security. The economy, rebuilding, and humanitarian assistance would be entrusted to a civil administrator, possibly appointed by the UN, whose task would be financed, in part, by exploiting Iraqi oil resources.

The highest officials of the current Iraqi regime would be judged by a military court, while minor civil servants who choose to cooperate would be treated with "indulgence."

But what about the "minor detail" regarding the fate of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's president? asks Gorissen. His future is not very well assured. The best solution for him -- and the move most likely to avoid a war -- would be his retreat into exile, she says.

Several possible host countries have been considered, including Russia, Belarus, Egypt, and Libya. But she notes that many observers, including the U.S. State Department, have expressed doubt that the Iraqi leader will "wisely" choose this option.

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