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Western Press Review: The Mideast Peace Process, Iraq, And Liberia

Prague, 30 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- International creeping toward Mideast peace leads the topics in our survey today of press commentary, with armed conflicts in Iraq and Liberia also attracting discussion.


Britain's "The Times" says in an editorial that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Washington this week, his eighth, may be the most important ever. The newspaper says that the situation is not as advanced as it was three years ago when then U.S. President Bill Clinton was intervening, but that all sides have made praiseworthy contributions.

The editorial says: "[Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud] Abbas has shown some courage in his dealings with [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat and his efforts to convince the likes of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah that they should not obstruct him. Mr. Sharon has again demonstrated that he is more pragmatic than his critics would have it, agreeing, for example, to the release of several hundred Palestinian prisoners despite the anger that this predictably caused in his Likud party.

"[U.S. President George W.] Bush, despite widespread skepticism abroad, has lived up to his promise, first issued in a press conference held with Tony Blair in Belfast in April, to engage himself personally and profoundly in the peace process. Mr. Blair thus deserves a proportion of the political credit as well.

"This remains, though, an extremely fragile situation. The three-month truce declared by Palestinian extremists four weeks ago has, more or less, held intact but whether it will be truly durable is doubtful. General Moshe Yaalon, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force, expressed his concerns on this score yesterday, observing that 'I am counting the days until the next wave of violence erupts.'

"A single atrocity, as those inclined to execute such a scheme appreciate, could inflict enormous political damage. Mr. Abbas remains at risk of being deliberately destabilized by Mr. Arafat and his allies. Mr. Sharon presides over a cabinet that is deeply divided between those drawn from the political center and others influenced by either ideological purity or religious conviction."


"The Irish Times" sees less cause for optimism. It says in an editorial, "The Middle East peace process returned to impasse yesterday as President George [W.] Bush and the Israeli prime minister, Mr. Ariel Sharon, insisted the Palestinian leadership must take effective and sustained action against terrorist movements if progress is to be made."

The editorial says that Bush appeared to align with Abbas during his own White House visit, just preceding that of Sharon, but that Sharon promptly recaptured any lost political ground with Bush. Israel is to continue building its security barrier and Sharon plans no more concessions until his impossible conditions of cessation of all "terrorism, incitement and violence" are met.

"The Irish Times" says: "Peace will be impossible to achieve on such a basis. Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation is at the heart of the violence. Mr. Abbas' proposals are a sensible way to overcome the tension between this central fact and the effort to make political progress. They depend on real gestures of goodwill from the Israeli side, which would recognize the huge imbalance between the two sides and the need for Mr. Abbas to build trust for his strategy. Mr. Sharon's conditions amount to a veto on his approach. If Mr. Bush and the other sponsors of the road map do not recognize that, this peace process will be doomed."


"The Independent's" commentator Johann Hari writes in the British daily that both Israel and the Palestinians "seem trapped forever" in mad arguments based on their own, contradictory, national myths -- both of which contain truths and ardent false beliefs.

Hari writes: "Yes, we need a political process that ends the murderous occupation of Gaza and the West Bank; we need a full Palestinian state there, and full equality for Arabs within Israel proper.

"But proper reconciliation -- as opposed to a top-down political solution -- will come only through a massive re-education program on both sides. Israel is now secure enough to admit publicly -- and to teach its children -- that the ethics of 1948 were horribly complex. The reality is that the victims of one of the worst atrocities in human history, many still half-emaciated from the concentration camps, were desperate to feel safe. So they did a terrible thing: they committed another though not equivalent -- Nazi analogies are offensive and false -- atrocity against the Palestinians."

The writer says: "The solution is not, as the fanatics of Islamic Jihad and Hamas imagine, to reverse that decision now: the way to correct an act of ethnic cleansing 55 years ago cannot be to commit another, larger act of ethnic cleansing today. Rather, it is to share the land, to compensate the victims of 1948, and to begin to learn about the other side's story at last. I doubt that this last recommendation will happen soon. This is a shame."


Khalil Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah in the West Bank. He says in a commentary in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" that his research shows that a minority of Palestinian refugees displaced from homes now in Israel still wish to return. He says they have accepted the implicit policy shift of their leaders, now preferring a two-state -- Israeli-Palestinian -- solution.

Shikaki writes: "When the Palestinian national movement decided in the mid-1970s to abandon the ideology of liberating all of historic Palestine in favor of a two-state solution, it failed to explain to its refugee constituency the implications of that shift for their right of return to their homes and towns inside Israel. Once it had agreed to a division of the land, it could not have logically advocated a division of the people, with some becoming Israeli and others Palestinian."

Shikaki writes: "Perhaps the most surprising finding I came out with from the refugee surveys that I have conducted among 4,500 refugee families in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan in the first half of this year is the extent to which the refugees -- without help from their own leaders -- have internalized the dramatic shift and have acted on it, favoring their national identity over land and legacy."


The "Financial Times" publishes a commentary by Steven Everts, a senior fellow at the Center for European Reform, arguing that NATO should deploy forces to keep the Mideast peace. NATO is needed, Everts says, because neither side in the Mideast is living up to its commitments in the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map.

Everts writes: "Paradoxically, Israelis and Palestinians are united in their support for the road map -- and in their conviction that it will not succeed. That is why both sides are, disturbingly, flirting with a plan B.

"Parallel to their discussions with the Palestinians, the Israeli government is building a 'security fence,' creating new facts on the ground that will make a deal more difficult to achieve.

"Among Palestinians, there is growing talk of returning to a one-state solution if, as they fully expect, the road map fails to lead to a viable Palestinian state. That would mean the Palestinians somehow turning their demographic advantage into political liberation inside a single, democratic Israeli-Palestinian entity."

The writer says: "If the United States, Europe and others want to maintain the momentum behind the road map, they will have to make a greater investment -- politically and militarily. They should propose that a NATO-led security force move into the West Bank and Gaza. The aim would be to shore up a fragile cease-fire, help to break the current impasse in the security negotiations and thereby unlock progress in other areas."


In the "Frankfurter Rundschau," commentator Inge Guenther writes that U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- who is spearheading U.S. peace efforts in the Mideast -- is concerned with "hard-hitting political business [that is] more effective behind the scenes than loud media declarations of intentions."

The paper writes, "The influential lady from the White House has obviously learned from some of the clumsiness of her colleague, Secretary of State Colin Powell."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says that U.S. President George W. Bush, used to successes, did not envisage that the Mideast task would be so difficult. It says, "Now he sees clearly the road map he planned passes through a minefield."

The editorial says: "President Bush is letting both Israel and Palestine know that Big Brother is watching and [that] neither should believe that Bush is going to lose interest if the two hot-tempered rivals persist in bickering. Hence the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, is soon going to be called to report back to the White House, and the regular guest Sharon will speedily follow."


"The Washington Post" says in an editorial that the entire congressional report on the 11 September 2001 terror attacks should be made public, including the 28-page suppressed section dealing with alleged Saudi Arabian involvement.

The editorial says, "The Bush administration's refusal to declassify a 28-page section of the congressional 9/11 report dealing with Saudi Arabia has touched off a round of allegations -- most notably, that the secrecy protects Saudi sensibilities, not American security."

The newspaper says, "For their part, the Saudis don't want the protection, complaining that they cannot respond to blacked-out information."

The editorial continues: "Nobody seriously believes that the Saudi government knowingly supported the 9/11 attacks. Saudi Arabia's role is subtler."

The paper concludes: "The 9/11 report has given Americans a window into the failures of their government in responding adequately to the threat of Al-Qaeda. The public should also have the opportunity to hear about -- and from -- foreign governments, even putative allies, that may have erred as well."


Britain's "The Guardian" writes about the killing in Baghdad of five Iraqi civilians last weekend. It says that by unofficial count -- U.S. officials give no numbers -- 5,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the Iraq war.

"The Guardian" says: "The carnage on Sunday [27 July] in the Mansur district of Baghdad, when U.S. 'elite units' killed at least five innocent people during another botched search for Saddam [Hussein], should finally focus attention on this reckless disregard for civilian life.

"The facts are clear: the American forces threw an incomplete cordon around the house they were targeting, and then shot up several cars which unwittingly penetrated it. The only official U.S. comment so far has been the callous remark that 'if you cross a roadblock, we assume you mean to do harm.'"

The editorial says: "To our knowledge, no enquiry has been launched into any of the previous incidents in which civilians were shot. It is not even clear to whom their grieving families can complain. Preoccupied with its own losses, the United States has been indifferent to those, which it inflicts on the Iraqi people. The Mansur victims and all the others deserve a proper inquest."


Robin Cook, former British foreign secretary and former leader of the House of Commons, writes in a commentary in "The Independent" that the British government is in error in its recent squabble with the BBC. Cook resigned as house leader last March in protest against British involvement in the Iraq war without UN backing.

Cook writes that he finds personally distasteful the government's treatment of its conflict with the BBC as a kind of "high noon" -- that is, a climactic confrontation. "I am also perplexed why the government has picked on the BBC as its whipping boy. As a social democrat, I could have comprehended a call to arms against any of the right-wing newspapers, but, on the contrary, a government of the center-left has instead embraced some of those conservative organs as allies in its jihad against the corporation that provides public-service broadcasting. In my more suspicious moments, I wonder whether Number 10 does not regard those papers as too powerful to take on, but regards the BBC as weak enough to bully."

Cook warns in his commentary against allowing the Blair government to take on the anti-press coloration of Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "I would urge my former colleagues to call a truce. A government victory over the BBC is an appalling prospect, as it could only be secured on terms that would undermine the independence and authority of public-service broadcasting. It is bad enough having a government that shares Berlusconi's view of trans-Atlantic relations, without it also emulating his intimidation of state broadcasting. Besides,...there are much bigger problems about the present media culture of which the contemporary BBC is a symptom, not a cause."

Commentaries in "The Christian Science Monitor" and "The Independent" criticize what the latter calls "indecision in America" over intervention in Liberia's disastrous civil war.


"The Independent" says in an editorial: "Like it not, America is now involved in this fray [in Liberia]. At the very least, the Nigerian peacekeepers standing by will need full logistical support from the U.S. ships on their way to the area if they are to secure a cease-fire. At the worst, a resumption in fighting will bring with it a rising tide of human calamity that demands direct intervention.

"The awful truth for the civilians in this nasty little war is that both sides see in their misery a way of impelling outside intervention, and therefore have no reason to minimize the casualties. [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush's attempt to face both ways, bringing on the ships but refusing to land the troops, may yet be saved by the cease-fire. But it's an indecision that becomes positively irresponsible if the fighting starts up again."


"The Christian Science Monitor" carries a commentary by former U.S. diplomat Dennis Jett, who writes: "Mr. Bush takes pride in taking tough decisions and in the 'moral clarity' of his foreign policy. Yet he has dithered for a month on making a decision about Liberia since suggesting on the eve of his African tour that American troops might become peacekeepers there. And he apparently sees no moral dilemma in turning a deaf ear to Liberia's pleas for help."

Jett, who was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia from 1989 to 1991, comments: "The fact is the United States doesn't care enough to play the part of policeman and provide a chance for a lasting solution. Instead, the State Department is instructed to patch together the best deal possible. That means accommodating yet again the people who have the guns."

The writer concludes: "Under the agreement currently being discussed, the rebels will be given the vice presidency and other high government offices. Pursuing political power through the use of violence once again is paying off, and whoever assumes the presidency in Liberia will last only until a bigger thug comes along. In other words, the suffering and the selling out of Liberia go on and on."

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