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Western Press Review: The Aqaba Summit, The Search For WMD, And Afghan Reconstruction

Prague, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL)) -- Much of the commentary in the Western press today is dedicated to the outcome of yesterday's meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, between U.S. President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The three met to discuss ways of implementing the ideas contained in the road map to peace.

We also take a look at the ongoing controversy over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Two-and-a-half months after the war began, Anglo-American forces have not uncovered the suspected weapons of mass destruction that served as a main casus belli. Other commentary today admonishes us not to forget about Afghanistan's struggling reconstruction efforts, even as other issues around the world take center stage.


Writing in "The Washington Post," Glenn Kessler says the "carefully crafted comments" made by the U.S. president and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers following their summit in Aqaba, Jordan, were as notable "for what they left out as for what they said."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon avoided referring directly to the contested Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, instead saying Israel would dismantle and remove "unauthorized outposts." Kessler notes Sharon drew a distinction between the scattered outposts set up by Israeli settlers and those authorized under Israeli law. The road map makes no such distinction. Kessler suggests the failure to clarify this distinction may come back to haunt the peace process.

As for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, he made no clear reference to Israel as "a Jewish state." Kessler cites an unnamed Palestinian official as saying such a reference carries too much emotional and political weight for Palestinians.

The two leaders' references to a Palestinian state also highlighted distinctions. Sharon referred simply to the creation of a "viable" Palestinian state; Abbas described "an independent Palestinian state, sovereign, viable." Sharon reassured his audience that he was committed to creating a Palestine with "territorial contiguity," using a phrase Kessler says "has multiple interpretations." For Palestinians, this means a Palestine that is not divided up by Israeli settlements and security outposts. In contrast, Sharon has suggested "this could mean 'territorial continuity' created by bridges and tunnels that joined Palestinian lands."

And both sides, notes Kessler, avoided mention of Jerusalem.


Writing in the British "Guardian," author Amos Oz says the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs "are ahead of their leaders." Both peoples "know that the disputed land must be divided into two nation states."

The 5.5 million Jews and 3-4 million Arabs inhabiting a small country "cannot share the land -- so they must divide it into two." Oz points out the Czechs and Slovaks did the same "without shedding any blood at all" in their 1993 Velvet Divorce, which divided Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak republics.

Oz writes: "After three years of bloody Palestinian intifada and of bloody Israeli oppression, it has became clear to the majority of the Israelis that most of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in Gaza will have to be removed, otherwise there cannot be a viable state of Palestine. At the same time, more and more Palestinians now realize that the 1948 refugees will have to be resettled in Palestine, not in Israel -- otherwise there will be no viable state of Israel. " The concessions on both sides will mean an injured national "self-image, a compromised sense of justice, shattered dreams, and a heavy sense of loss." And there will be no instant reconciliation, says Oz. But the "time is ripe" for this "painful divorce," he says.


An "Irish Times" editorial says there have been too many "false dawns" in the "bloody history" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for yesterday's summit in Aqaba, Jordan, "to shake [the] pervasive pessimism and cynicism with which the region's war-weary people view the latest tentative steps toward peace." However, the paper says, Aqaba "does mark an important opportunity." Significantly, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged that a "viable" Palestinian state would need contiguous territory and promised to dismantle "unauthorized" Israeli settlements.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas "also made brave declarations" to move the process forward. He made clear that attacks on Israeli settlers or outposts were not a legitimate form of Palestinian struggle and pledged to end the military aspects of the intifada.

U.S. President George W. Bush's engagement in the talks "signaled concretely" the U.S. commitment to the peace process. "The Irish Times" says U.S. involvement is "crucial as an interlocutor with Israel, able to provide the guarantees of security that its most reliable ally in the Middle East needs" before it is willing to make concessions.

The paper says the real challenge will lie in the details of implementation, and "the road [will be] bumpy, but today, at least, we must take at face value the commitments and the will expressed at Aqaba."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" says the U.S.-led war in Iraq "has changed the politics of the Middle East." It says "For the first time in years," the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "is suddenly moving in the right direction."

U.S. President George W. Bush "scored major concessions" from both sides on his trip to the region, the paper says. And the results of the meeting at Aqaba "could not have could not have happened in the Saddam [Hussein] era, when Palestinian suicide bombers were being bankrolled by the Iraqi regime to kill Israeli civilians."

The "Journal" says Israelis "understand that Saddam's removal has improved their strategic depth, while Palestinians have seen that terror is a dead end." This, the paper says, is "the Iraq War dividend."

Commentary in the German press is also largely focused on the outcome of the Aqaba summit, the first-ever official meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and U.S. President George W. Bush. Prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas both announced they would take initial steps toward a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abbas notably declared his intention to stop terrorist violence, while Sharon made some tentative proposals on the sensitive issue of settlements, pledging to dismantle Israeli outposts set up without government approval.


Jacques Schuster in "Die Welt" says the success of the Aqaba meeting "depends on America's authority." He explains: "With the victory in Iraq, the Americans have become an Arab power, which not only supervises but fulfills a creative task." This applies both to Iraq and to Israel and Palestine. The latter countries' leaders have "fully comprehended Bush's plans for the region and, for the first time, are prepared to engage each other." Schuster sees this as progress indeed, saying, "When in recent times have we had such cause for optimism?"

And yet, a sense of jubilation would be premature, he says. The process is only beginning and the real problems lie ahead. Extremists are bound to attempt further suicide bombings and both Abbas and Sharon will have to be willing to make more "painful compromises." In the final analysis, says Schuster, a solution depends on help and pressure from Washington.


Peter Muench, writing in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," says since the failure of former President Bill Clinton's attempts to reach a settlement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders at Camp David, there "has never been so much hope."

But the fact that the outcome of the Aqaba summit "shines so brightly lies in the dark gloom of the recent past." Not only was the region subject to increasing terror and violence, but it was also far from a priority for Washington. Now all this has changed with the creation of the road map and Bush's renewed engagement, evidenced by yesterday's summit in Aqaba.

Muench views this as the first tiny step along a long road to peace. It remains uncertain how far both Sharon and Abbas are willing to go -- and also how far Bush is prepared to drive them. "The devil is lurking at every turn," Muench writes.


Writing in France's "Liberation," Christophe Ayad says after 32 months of slaughter and destruction, the expectations were so weak for the summit in Aqaba, Jordan, that it now is being hailed as the beginning of a new peace process, when in fact it has only established the preconditions for a return to the peace process.

But Palestinians can take heart in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's pronouncement that he supports the creation of a "Palestinian state" with "territorial contiguity," says Ayad. The Palestinians should use this statement to not allow themselves to be locked into a "patchwork" of scattered Palestinian territories.

But Ayad says it remains to be seen what Sharon means by "contiguity," as "this word was not chosen at random." Does Sharon refer to tunnels and tram lines that will connect several disconnected Palestinians lands? Or does he mean Israel will make the "painful concessions" to which Sharon has famously and repeatedly referred?


A "Financial Times" editorial today says: "It should be standard practice, after every war, to have an inquest to see how prewar intelligence matches up to postwar reality. But after the Iraq conflict, it is essential." The inquiries now taking place on both sides of the Atlantic are looking into "damaging" accusations that British and American intelligence was manipulated to exaggerate the threat allegedly posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and thus justify a war. The result of these inquiries by both the British parliament and the U.S. Congress "will determine in large part the credibility of their governments."

The paper says the issue of Iraq's weapons "should not be minimized by the legal nicety that Iraq's defiance of successive United Nations resolutions was sufficient justification for the war." Nor can it merely be included in the various other "political rationales" for removing Hussein, among them his reputation as "a tyrant and serial abuser of human rights." The paper says: "For it was the claim that Iraq's WMD were a clear and present danger that was used to tip [opinion in] the U.S. to an extent, and Britain decisively, into war. And so far no such weaponry has been found."


A lead editorial in the British "Times" says the West must not forget the promises it made to Afghanistan. "Nearly two years after becoming the target of the West's war on terror, [Afghanistan] remains a troubled, disorderly, half-ruined land on the brink of chaos." Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai, who is scheduled to meet today in London with Prime Minister Tony Blair, may have "two urgent requests" to make of his hosts.

One will be for more foreign troops, deployed throughout more regions of the country instead of concentrated in and around Kabul. Security remains tenuous throughout the country, which is slowing reconstruction efforts.

Karzai's other request may well be "for the West to remember its promises to fund and follow through on Afghanistan's reconstruction -- and not just walk away now that the war is over."

At Afghanistan's January 2002 donor conference in Tokyo, the international community pledged $5 billion to kick-start reconstruction. Of that, only $1.8 billion has "trickled in," and even that has been delayed. Much of it has been diverted to "pressing emergency needs," including "medicines, tents, [and] firewood."

"The Times" says, "With so much conspiring to deflect the interest of foreign politicians, Mr. Karzai will have to fight hard during this visit to galvanize Britain and other allies into keeping old promises."

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