Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2000, Pages 47, 75

The European Press View the Middle East

Sharon’s Temple Mount Visit “Unprecedented Act of Provocation,” Says Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung

By Lucy Jones

As the Olympic Games in Sydney came to an exuberant ceremonial end, the Middle East sank into crisis. Many European newspapers attributed the visit of Israeli Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon to the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, a Muslim holy site in eastern Jerusalem, with sparking this latest round of violence. Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung on Oct. 2 described Sharon as “the leading Israeli agitator” in the conflagration, and called his shrine visit “an unprecedented act of provocation which led to the first clashes.”

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, also published in Germany, said the same day that the chief Palestinian and Israeli negotiators had spent too long playing for time. They ignored the fact that segments of their people regard the conflict as a holy war, the paper said, and would rather see a peace deal signed in blood than in ink. What began as unrest on the Temple Mount has escalated to a conflict in the Palestinian territories, the paper noted, and is reverberating through neighboring Arab nations. Israel now risks embroilment in a crisis far more serious than the first Palestinian intifada, commented the newspaper.

Elsewhere in Europe, pundits were wondering whether the crisis would develop into full-scale war between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Britain’s Daily Telegraph commented Oct. 2 on the central role the city of Jerusalem plays in the latest outburst of violence. “Jerusalem has always been the issue on which the negotiations were likely to fail,” the paper editorialized. “Foolishly, the negotiators agreed to leave Jerusalem on one side while settling the other issues. This means that, with no slack to be given elsewhere, Jerusalem must bear the full pressure of their disagreement. Many Palestinians have concluded that violence is the best way to pursue their claim, and yesterday, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to rule out the possibility of outright war against Israel. The prognosis is not good,” the paper concluded.

Italy’s Il Messaggero wrote on Oct. 1 that the latest escalation of violence came about because of a “dangerous political and diplomatic vacuum between the two sides.” The breakdown of negotiations at Camp David gave extremists from both camps new strength, the paper said in an editorial, and Israeli Prime Minister Barak and Palestinian leader Arafat either didn’t understand, or didn’t want to quell, this force quickly enough.

France’s Le Figaro commented on Oct. 2 that it was too late to turn the clock back. “Yasser Arafat can no longer restrain his people’s anger,” the paper said. “This simple fact should put pressure on all those who want to see peace in the Middle East. Israel and the Palestinians are never going to solve the difficult Jerusalem question alone.”

Israel Uses Air Force After Two Soldiers Are Killed

The murder of two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Ramallah led to the bombing of Palestinian towns by the Israeli airforce. Germany’s Leipziger Volkszeitung said on Oct. 13 that the killers of the two Israeli soldiers committed their atrocity in the name of resistance against the Israeli occupation, but in reality they provided the spark for an explosion which has nothing to do with peace, wrote the paper. But Israel’s Barak, the newspaper continued, retaliated with an act of violence which will certainly provoke new violence and which, too, the paper said, has nothing do with peace.

The Stuttgarter Zeitung commented Oct. 12 that at no time in the previous few weeks was the reign of violence as firmly established as now. The peacemakers, the paper said, kept hoping right up until the last moment that a word from the politicians could end the revolt. However, according to the paper, all those preparations for summits, the signatures and the provisional agreements had been made worthless by the killing of the soldiers and Israel’s retaliation.

The Berlin-based Die Welt said the same day that Arafat’s game of exploiting the unrest for his own end has massively backfired. The paper commented that Arafat has lost control over the people on the streets—if he ever had any. The violence has taken on a life of its own, the paper continued, and that is mostly the fault of the Palestinian leader. “Arafat’s obstinacy, his almost blind zealousness and his inability to make any concessions to his ”˜partner’ Barak unleashed those scenes on the streets of Ramallah, which were contemptuous of human life. They forced the Israeli premier to act,” said the paper.

Further escalation of violence threatens to set the entire Middle East aflame.

Poland’s Rzeczpospolita said on Oct. 13 that the growing wave of hatred on both sides—the accusations, the mobilization of Israelis worldwide, the tumultuous whispers in the Arab and Islamic world—prove one thing: the Middle East is still far from peace. Optimistic forecasts that Israelis and Palestinians could this year sign an agreement ending more than 50 years of confrontation have been proven wrong, the paper asserted.

The Netherlands’ De Telegraaf concluded the same day that the laborious peace process of the past few years has been shattered by the Israelis’ harsh stand and by the Palestinians’ uncontrolled rage. And, the paper added, further escalation of violence threatens to set the entire Middle East aflame.

Spain’s El Mundo of Oct. 13 agreed, saying that the conflicting parties have done nothing but pour oil onto the fire. Italy’s La Repubblica of Oct. 12 described the day Israel decided to bomb Palestinian villages as “a black day, and an historic one.” The newspaper pointed out that in 33 years of occupation, Israel had never used tanks and military helicopters against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

France’s Le Figaro of Oct. 13 feared that the risk of the spread of violence is not merely regional. Terrorism is a global danger, the paper said, as the attack on the U.S. warship in the Yemen and the arson attack on the synagogue in the French city of Trappes show. One should not forget, the paper added, that ever since the first Camp David accord in 1978, the peace process has always been overshadowed by catastrophes—and the escalation might continue.

Russia’s Vremya Novosti said on Oct. 13 that the outcome is hardly surprising. The Middle East peace process of the 1990s, the paper said, was basically a policy of papering over the irresolvable contradictions between two peoples who—by force of geography, history and religion—are forced to share one and the same territory, holy for both sides.

Europeans Contemplate Sharm el-Sheikh Summit

Three days later the European press was looking toward the Middle East summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. France’s Liberation on Oct. 16 observed that a new Israeli-Palestinian summit is “better than military escalation.” However, the paper said, it is also better not to have any illusions about the outcome of the summit. “At best, it will be a blueprint for a cease-fire, which then has to be put into action on site,” the paper observed. “And it will not be easy to silence the weapons.”

Sweden’s Sydsvenska Dagbladet of Oct. 16 said that room for summit diplomacy was limited, adding that it was hard to imagine how talks could lead to compromise.

Russia’s Vremya Novosti commented the same day that even if Barak and Arafat are willing to consider new compromises, their own comrades-in-arms will not let them. The Israeli opposition is convinced that the problem must be solved by violence, the paper said.

London’s Financial Times of Oct. 16 said that never have the stakes been so high, and the expectations so low, as at the upcoming summit in Egypt. If it goes wrong, more Israelis and Palestinians will die, the paper warned, and hard-liners will take over in both camps. Both sides, the paper concluded, should have enough incentive to take their own initiatives to calm the situation.

The summit on the shores of the Red Sea needed nothing less than a miracle to succeed, said the Oct. 16 La Repubblica of Rome.

Sharm el-Sheikh “Dispiriting”

Even the most optimistic readers were hard-pressed at the end of October to find a reaction to the Sharm el-Sheikh emergency summit with the emotional thermostat set higher than “gloom and doom.” The Times of London on Oct. 19 described it as being “among the most dispiriting episodes in the bleak annals of international attempts to dampen down the flames of Arab-Israeli conflict.” The editorial continued: “The American president, who has had to watch seven years of peace-building being torn apart in 20 days, set out to do no more than short-circuit the currents of hatred—but even that was a task almost beyond his charisma and legendary stamina.”

The Financial Times of Oct. 20 declared the summit’s final statement “the best that could have been hoped for given the mood of high tension and mutual recrimination. A new generation of Palestinians has set a new agenda, far removed from previous peace accords,” the paper concluded. “Sharm el-Sheikh is unlikely to deflect them from their goal.”

The British paper found the meeting itself more hopeful. In addition to lauding increased European Union and U.N. involvement in the process “to counter the United State’s imbalanced support for Israel,” the Financial Times proclaimed: “Israeli and Palestinian leaders have come sufficiently close to the brink of negotiating collapse to think twice about propelling themselves over the precipice of potentially much deeper conflict. They both face dreadfully difficult choices about their future and legitimacy should they fail. They are aware that more radical elements are waiting to take the initiative, capable of driving the Middle East region in more dangerous directions” the newspaper concluded.

Most papers agreed that both Arafat and Barak are in difficult positions. Britain’s Guardian on Oct. 19 outlined Arafat’s problems: “The deep, unfeigned anger of younger generations of Palestinians at a peace process they see as weighted against their nation’s interests has both wrongfooted and galvanized their corrupt, lackluster leadership, and stirred the apathetic Arab world beyond,” the paper wrote. “[Arafat] is increasingly in danger of being seen by them as the stooge of a discredited, U.S.-led scheme to circumvent U.N. resolutions, stifle Palestine’s legitimate aspirations, and consolidate Israel’s quasi-colonial dominance.”

Austria’s Der Standard on Oct. 23 asked: “What is Israel going to do if the Palestinians continue their violent opposition? Is it going to carry out the threatened total separation, that is, keep the Palestinians in a virtual ghetto?” Is that, the paper wondered, really an option?

The same day, Switzerland’s Basler Zeitung said that everyone between Algiers and Baghdad felt hit by the Israeli bullets. Arab leaders can no longer shove aside the political opinions of millions of people, the paper said, which is why, at the Arab summit, the condemnation of Israel was aired via satellite TV for the first time—as a response from the rulers to their people. Those responsible in Israel, the paper concluded, should not underestimate this new political power in the Arab world.

Rome’s Il Messaggero of Oct. 23 said that, while Palestinians were still dying, the Arab leaders in Cairo did send Israel a pragmatic message of peace. The signals emitting from Jerusalem, however, were still confusing and ambiguous, the paper said.

Paris’ La Croix stated the same day that the Oslo peace process was dead, as a gradual method of progressively building up trust on the path to peace, and because it had reached the end of the road. The current situation showed that the process will have to start all over again, the paper concluded.

Madrid’s El Pais of Oct. 22 commented that Barak is by no means the dove that he presented himself as being, and that Arafat has followed Barak’s move toward harsh action. “Both made mistakes, neither won an advantage,” the paper said. “On both sides, a growing number of people see war as the only way out of this dead-end street.”

Lucy Jones is a free-lance journalist based in New York.