Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004, pages 38-39
European Press Review
Israel’s Assassination of Sheikh Yassin “Illegal,” Says UK’s Independent
By Lucy Jones
Israel’s killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin on March 22, and of Yassin’s successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, on April 18 divided European editorial writers.
Sheikh Yassin was “no peacemaker,” wrote the UK’s Independent on March 23, adding that the paraplegic leader preached the need for armed struggle and suicide bombings from his wheelchair. “Nevertheless,” the newspaper said, “this killing was state-sponsored murder and as such it was illegal.”
Noted Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the same day, “Civilized states consider it unacceptable that a country which in other respects belongs to the community of democratic states should use methods employed by terrorists.”
“A terrible folly,” was how the UK’s tabloid Mirror described the murder March 23. “If it was done to stop the violence,” it added, “then it will achieve the opposite.”
Britain’s tabloid Sun that day was less sympathetic, however, telling its readers that being the spiritual leader of Hamas “is not like being the Archbishop of Canterbury,” the head of the Anglican Church.
According to the London Times of the same day, Yassin “had more in common with Osama Bin Laden.”
Other commentators saw Yassin’s murder as related to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. “The murder of...Yassin was probably designed to show an Israeli plan to withdraw from Gaza...is motivated by design, not weakness,” wrote BBC world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds on March 22.
“The implementation of this strategy requires, in the Israeli view, strikes against Hamas and similar groups, which would otherwise declare victory when the Israeli forces leave,” Reynolds wrote. “There is really no prospect for peace...the road map has been rolled up and...another 20 years of war is the most likely scenario.”
Following Rantisi’s murder, Switzerland’s Le Temps wrote on April 19 that the assassination reflects the refusal of Israel’s current leaders to accept the “Palestinians as a people, let alone as interlocutors.” The newspaper concluded, “Weaker and more ignored than ever, in the context of the global fight against terrorism, they have been collectively transformed into a nation of 3.5 million ghosts.”
Hostage-takers “Securing Recognition,” Says Trud
Iraqi militants abducted some 40 foreign nationals in April, after violence erupted in Shi’i and Sunni parts of the country. The hostages included Canadians, South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Italians—some of whom were set free. Italian Fabrizio Quattrocchi, however, was killed on April 15, prompting outrage in Italy.
Quattrocchi’s execution was an “inhuman act” that “chills the blood,” said the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano the following day. “The hostage-takers’ blackmail threatens to hold up any strategy aimed at restoring at least a semblance of order to the ravaged land of Iraq,” the newspaper observed.
The day after the April 13 release of three Russian and five Ukrainian engineers in Iraq, Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta said that, although the Kremlin had been a strong voice in the antiwar coalition, its nationals have “no freedom of maneuver in Iraq.”
But the April 14 Trud said the release of the Russians and Ukrainians was “well-planned propaganda.” The newspaper explained that, “First, the insurgents have vividly demonstrated that the Americans are not capable of guaranteeing anybody’s security in Iraq. Second, they are forcing interested states and foreign organizations to enter into talks with their representatives or agents, thereby indirectly securing international recognition as a real internal political force.”
Failure of Cyprus to Unite Called a “Missed Opportunity”
In an April 24 referendum, Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly voted against a U.N. plan to reunite the island. In contrast, Turkish Cypriots in the predominantly Muslim north endorsed the plan, with a 65 percent majority. Both sides needed to approve the proposal for Cyprus to be reunified in time for its May 1 accession to the European Union.
“The rejection by Greek Cypriots of the U.N. plan to reunite Cyprus is a missed opportunity,” lamented Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of April 26. ”Their vote is a slap in the face for the United Nations, the Americans..., the European Union and not least the Turkish-Cypriot co-residents on the island,” the paper said.
Switzerland’s Le Temps of the same day, however, suggested it would be wrong of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots to regard themselves as innocent victims of the Greek-Cypriot vote. The “obstinacy” of Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, the issue of the transfer of Turkish land, and the militarization of the territory explained Greek Cypriots’ reservations, the paper argued. “You can’t fan the flames with impunity only then to complain that you got burnt,” it said. (Many Greek Cypriots had voted “no” in the referendum because of limits on their right to return to property in the Turkish north.)
Germany’s Tagesspiegel of April 26 saw an upside to the result, however. "The EU will help north Cypriots,” the newspaper said. Many Turkish Cypriots had seen the unification as a means of ending the international isolation they have endured since Turkish troops invaded the island in 1974.
Spain’s Withdrawal From Iraq Has “Symbolic” Importance
Spain’s new Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ordered on April 18 that Spanish troops in Iraq be brought home in “as short a time as possible.” (A few days later, Honduras ordered its 370-strong contingent home as well.)
In Spain, there was mixed reaction to Zapatero’s decision. “The joy of a large sector of the population on hearing the good news is understandable,” said the following day’s El Mundo. “But it would be irresponsible to encourage...hostility towards the PP [the former governing Popular Party], which has already paid politically for the mistake of sending troops to Iraq.”
According to the April 19 El Pais, “Spain, preferably in a European framework, must work to ensure that the international presence in Iraq is not perceived by a large sector of its population as a colonial occupation that must be resisted.”
The same day’s La Razon, however, feared that by withdrawing Spanish troops, the Socialist leader would miss a great opportunity to help put Iraq back on its feet. “The prime minister has fulfilled a promise on which he unnecessarily staked his honor,” it said, “and our country is once again absent from a great historical crossroads for the West.”
ABC also voiced concern that day about the broader implications of Zapatero’s decision. “This repatriation will mean a new foreign policy,” the paper warned, “which, instead of being conducted...with the cooperation of allies and the international institutions to which Spain belongs, will have to be improvised according to the reactions it generates, taking our country backward into a diplomatic instability that it had overcome in recent years.”
Elsewhere, the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano argued on April 21 that Spain’s withdrawal from Iraq might precipitate “a kind of domino effect.” Observed Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung the same day, “The coalition of the willing might mutate into a club of the willing to leave.”
The April 21 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung warned that “Spain now faces the prospect of being cited in the handbooks of transnational terrorism as an example of how a government can be bombed out of office, its troops can be bombed from a country and a state can be bombed from an alliance with the Americans.”
“In military terms, this is a loss which the Americans will be able to get over,” said Austria’s Der Standard of April 20. But, the newspaper added, “symbolically it means an appreciable weakening of the ”˜coalition of the willing.’”
That day’s Die Tageszeitung, however, maintained that Spain has not given in to terrorists. “The new Spanish prime minister is merely returning to principles which Spain should never have abandoned,” it argued, “such as U.N. leadership in Iraq, and partnership with the most important EU countries and Arab states.” Added the newspaper, “It is only logical if [Zapatero] now withdraws the soldiers but, in the Security Council, continues to urge a greater role for the United Nations in Iraq.”
Bin Laden’s Message to Europe Seen As “Attempt to Divide”
A tape said to be of Osama bin Laden, offering Europe a truce if it “stops attacking Muslims,” was broadcast on Arab TV April 15. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he thought the tape was genuine.
“A cynical proposal” and “an attempt to split the West over Iraq,” was how France’s Le Figaro described the message the following day. The al-Qaeda leader, the paper noted, had “addressed himself directly to ordinary Europeans...urging them to disown their politicians” and had stressed that “the policies of the American administration are costing them dearly.” The newspaper took the latter as a reference to the March 11 Madrid attacks.
The Italian daily L’Unita of April 16 conceded that Bin Laden “has proved himself an expert at exploiting his enemies’ mistakes.” His offer of a “separate truce” to Europe, the paper said, “has come at a time when the war which George W. Bush’s America decided to wage against Iraq rather than against al-Qaeda’s terrorism is collapsing into chaos.”
In Germany, that day’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the simplicity of Bin Laden’s message could prove attractive to those who have opposed the war on Iraq from the outset. “But this is a temptation that should be resisted,” it argued. “Standing up firmly to this terrorist blackmail is also important,” the paper said, “if one believes that the United States was wrong to mix the fight against a terror network with a war between states.”
According to the April 16 Berliner Zeitung, although Europe is right to reject any negotiations with Bin Laden, it would be wrong to rule out talks with terrorists as a matter of principle. The paper observed that German as well as British, Italian, Spanish and U.S. governments have negotiated with such people in the past. “However,” it concluded, “negotiations make no sense if you can only engage in them through recorded tapes and have no idea how much power your negotiating partner has.”
9/11 Acquittal “Politicians’ Fault”
Mounir al-Motassadek, the only man to be convicted of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, was freed from custody in Germany on April 7, after his conviction was quashed due to lack of evidence.
The decision of a Hamburg court to free the suspect was the “fault of politicians,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the following day. The judges could not have acted differently, it argued, because the American and German governments withheld a witness vital to the case.
The April 8 Berliner Zeitung found it “absurd” that the ruling should have declared al-Motassadek no longer strongly suspected of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, while still acknowledging him as a member of a terrorist organization. “This is like saying to a footballer that he belongs to a soccer club, but all he ever does is play chess,” the paper said.
Diplomats “Appalled” at Blair Mideast Policy
More than 50 former British diplomats signed a letter to Tony Blair on April 26 criticizing his Middle East policy (see box).They urged the prime minister to start influencing America’s “doomed” policy in the region or stop backing it.
Writing in the UK’s Independent the next day, Donald Mcintyre said there are two probable aftermaths. “One will be a contention from some loyalist government circles that the letter is over-influenced by the ”˜camels’ as the Foreign Office’s Arabists have long been known by their detractors,” he wrote. “And the second is that the letter will strike a chord among many independent-minded Middle East experts, including some currently serving in significant jobs within the Foreign Office.”
A BBC commentator said the letter “will have a longer shelf life given the unprecedented numbers of signatories, the language used and the publicity stirred.
Lucy Jones is a free-lance journalist based in London.
In April 27 Letter, 52 Retired British Diplomats Tell Prime Minister Tony Blair His Mideast Policy Is “Doomed”
Dear Prime Minister: We the undersigned former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials, including some who have long experience of the Middle East and others whose experience is elsewhere, have watched with deepening concern the policies which you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and Iraq, in close cooperation with the United States. Following the press conference in Washington at which you and President Bush restated these policies, we feel the time has come to make our anxieties public, in the hope that they will be addressed in Parliament and will lead to a fundamental reassessment.
The decision by the USA, the EU, Russia and the U.N. to launch a “road map” for the settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict raised hopes that the major powers would at last make a determined and collective effort to resolve a problem which, more than any other, has for decades poisoned relations between the West and the Islamic and Arab worlds....But the hopes were ill-founded. Nothing effective has been done either to move the negotiations forward or to curb the violence. Britain and the other sponsors of the road map merely waited on American leadership, but waited in vain.
Worse was to come. After all those wasted months, the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood. Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it, abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land and which have been the basis for such successes as those efforts have produced.
This abandonment of principle comes at a time when rightly or wrongly we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.
The conduct of the war in Iraq has made it clear that there was no effective plan for the post-Saddam settlement. All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the Coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case. To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful. Policy must take account of the nature and history of Iraq, the most complex country in the region....
The military actions of the Coalition forces must be guided by political objectives and by the requirements of the Iraq theater itself, not by criteria remote from them. It is not good enough to say that the use of force is a matter for local commanders. Heavy weapons unsuited to the task in hand, inflammatory language, the current confrontations in Najaf and Falluja, all these have built up rather than isolated the opposition....
We share your view that the British government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the United States on both these related issues, and in exerting real influence as a loyal ally. We believe that the need for such influence is now a matter of the highest urgency. If that is unacceptable or unwelcome there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.