International Papers

Year of the Snake

In Israel’s general election campaign, Ha’aretz is waging a crusade against Likud candidate Ariel Sharon, although its support for Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak is a few valves short of halfhearted. Thursday’s editorial was devoted to Sharon’s “coalition partner” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of the religious Shas Party, who on Tuesday called Barak “the hater of Israel, the hater of Judaism” and accused him of “bringing us venomous snakes [the Palestinians] and strengthening their hand.” Ha’aretz told its readers:

The secular majority must remember that the coalition which Sharon seeks to set up is supported by the unrestrained spiritual evil of Shas, in the language of layabouts. … Those who are still toying with the idea of a protest vote against Barak, in order to punish him or teach him a lesson, must take into account not only the well-known shortcomings of Sharon, but also the latent dangers in his coalition with extremists and racists.

Meanwhile, a Ha’aretz op-ed thanked Sharon for “fleshing out the gross imperfections of the Israeli right” and declared, “With each passing day, the Likud leader is proving, with ever-increasing clarity, how Barak limping down a road to peace is an Olympic sprinter compared to Sharon.” In case it hadn’t made its sympathies clear, Ha’aretz also published a news story claiming Sharon had asked to be recognized as a disabled veteran just last year—52 years after he was injured and 27 years after he retired from the military—and an op-ed suggesting he had “amassed a considerable quantity of state land on which he established a ranch.”

The Jerusalem Post rushed to Sharon’s defense. An op-ed declared that the election’s most pressing issue is “restoring the country’s sense of pride and purpose, both of which have decayed in recent years. To do this, Israel will need a strong and imposing leader, one who will renew the nation’s confidence in the justness of the Zionist cause and reawaken its dormant sense of destiny.” And who better to serve as the Jewish de Gaulle than Ariel Sharon? Another wondered, “Why does everyone hate this man?” Not only do “the Arab world, the West, and Israeli leftists” detest him, but even for rightists, “His candidacy is often treated as something to be tolerated only because anyone would be better than Ehud Barak.” A spirited defense of Sharon’s record on security, economic affairs, and his military career concluded:

Sharon has also been guilty of some genuine mistakes. The most glaring, of course, was his poor judgment in failing to foresee that his Lebanese Christian allies were liable to commit a massacre if allowed into the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in 1982. … Yet despite such occasional failures, on balance, Israel has benefited from Sharon’s long career of public service

Spy wars: On Monday, President Vladimir Putin announced that some Russian army units will be withdrawn from Chechnya, and overall command of the region will be given to the Federal Security Service, the successor organization to the KGB. According to the Moscow Times, the Kremlin claimed that “the armed forces had completed their tasks in Chechnya” and the new structure would “enable the federal forces to cope more effectively with the rebels’ guerrilla tactics.”  The FSB’s focus will be on “special operations for the search for and neutralization of the ringleaders of the bandit formations and their adherents.” An op-ed pooh-poohed the official line that occupation equals victory, “On the contrary, it has turned into a bloody quagmire with casualties continuing to mount. … The change of direction announced by Putin is not a sign of strength, but an act of desperation.” An editorial in Britain’s Guardian fretted that the FSB’s tactics would include “state-sponsored terrorism and assassination,” and concluded, “Russia’s leader should stop shooting, start talking, and prove he is not just a thug in a sharp suit.” The Independent speculated that the timing of Putin’s announcement was driven by “a meeting of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly which is due to debate the suspension of Russia’s voting rights because of human rights abuses in Chechnya.” Le Temps of Geneva said that Putin, faced with a stalemate in Chechnya, wanted “to move symbolically to the next stage, to give the impression that the army fulfilled its mission.” But, the paper concluded, “Meanwhile, the average age of the rebels is decreasing as teen-agers join the ranks, and they don’t much care which ministry is in charge of the war, as long as the enemy is Russian.”

Who’ll play the cop? Two weeks after German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer admitted to punching a cop during a 1973 demonstration, interest in politicians’ pasts remains high. Last week, Fischer served as a character witness for a friend accused of helping Carlos the Jackal kidnap oil ministers at the 1975 Vienna OPEC meeting, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that this week an opposition spokesman said Fischer is unfit to serve in the government: “There are certain offices that must remain closed to those with such a history.” FAZ kept its coverage rooted firmly in the 1970s, but both El Mundo of Spain and the National Post of Canada brought up another era in recent history where Germans are “at odds with the past.” El Mundo announced, “Having overcome, to a large extent, the specter of Nazism, [Germans’] eagerness to clean up the past is now focused on their more recent history.” It said asking Fischer to resign is “absurd. … It would be like prohibiting Bush from being president of the United States because he was fined for drunken driving in his youth.” The National Post story mentioned the (other) N word twice, declaring, “In a country haunted by misdeeds of yesteryear, people with a past reinvent themselves, often rewriting history along the way. The Nazi generation did it, so did the East German Communists. Now it’s the turn of the student radicals. … Punching a cop in a demonstration is not the same as being a camp guard at Auschwitz.” The piece was crammed with human-interest factoids: Fischer is now married to his fourth wife, he dropped 65 pounds in the mid-1990s—when he also “ditched his leather jacket in favour of Italian suits,” and Hollywood is “reportedly ready” to turn his story into a movie starring Al Pacino.

While the snake’s away: The year of the snake began Wednesday, but in Vietnam it’s more like the year of the rat. The South China Morning Post of Hong Kong reported that a booming business in the nation’s thousands of snake restaurants has left the rodents with fewer natural predators, and the “soaring rat population is forecast to cause devastating damage to crops and grain stores.” Vietnamese snakes are also smuggled into China, where they’re used in traditional medicines.