Everybody leads with Ariel Sharon becoming Israel’s next prime minister via a landslide election victory yesterday over Ehud Barak.
The Sharon coverage notes that the result represents immense popular dissatisfaction with increased Palestinian-Israeli violence under Barak despite his offering Yasser Arafat new territorial concessions. Another contributing factor, say the papers, was an election boycott by Israeli Arabs–the Los Angeles Timesreports that polling stations in some Arab towns weren’t visited by a single voter. Sharon’s victory is seen as a remarkable comeback for a man firmly associated in voters’ minds with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, widely thought by Israelis to have been a Vietnam-like mistake. Indeed, the papers remind, Sharon was judged by an Israeli government commission to be indirectly responsible for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees under his forces’ protection when they were attacked by Lebanese militiamen. They also all point out that Sharon’s September visit to a contested Jerusalem holy site is widely seen as the catalyst for the recent violence in and around the West Bank.
The papers vary a bit in their picture of what Sharon’s election might mean to the region. The Washington Post explains in the most detail that he must form a government first. Given that Barak last night announced he was leaving his post as head of the Labor Party and even giving up his seat in the parliament (the makeup of which was not affected by yesterday’s election), this means the hunt is on for governing partners for Sharon, whose own Likud Party is quite small. Both the New York Times and WP mention the possibility that he might form a coalition with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Both the WP and NYT say that Sharon ran on a peace platform. USA Today’s headline mentions that in his victory remarks, Sharon expressed an interest in dialogue with the Palestinians. The NYT calls that speech “highly conciliatory.” The LAT lead paints a starker picture, saying high up that “[a]t the very least, Sharon’s sweeping victory was expected to slow the peace process further–and at most, paralyze it.” The WP does say that Sharon has always opposed the Oslo peace process that Barak and Arafat operated under, but the LAT gives the most detail on his stance on Palestinian matters: He says he won’t dismantle a single Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and won’t give the Palestinians a foothold in Jerusalem. In fact, he’s against giving them any more land anywhere. As to the election’s impact on the United States’ Mideast role, a WP headline informs, “VOTE MAY HASTEN BUSH’S MIDEAST PACE” while one at the LAT states, “BUSH IN NO HURRY TO PLUNGE INTO MIDEAST.”
The NYT, WP, and LAT front yesterday’s dramatic testimony, in the New York federal trial of men accused in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, offered by a witness never before publicly identified but who has been closely cooperating with the government for several years now and who claims to have once been a close aide of Osama Bin Laden’s. The man said on the stand that for many years (but ending two years before the bombings) he had smuggled weapons and moved money for Bin Laden. Testimony highlights: Becoming a member of Bin Laden’s group al Qaeda is a formal process including signing an oath; Bin Laden’s efforts have been focused on expelling America from the Mideast since the Gulf War; al Qaeda has trained Hezbollah fighters and members of other Muslim terrorist cells and has worked closely with the government of Sudan, which helped weed out spies and looked the other way when the group brought contraband into the country; the witness said that when traveling on a mission once, he was instructed to cut off his beard, wear Western clothes, carry cigarettes, and pack cologne. The LAT reports that the witness was paid $500 a month and once asked for a raise but was turned down. (Turns out you really can’t negotiate with terrorists.)
The WP fronts and the NYT stuffs (much more briefly) word that a few days after Al Gore conceded the election, he had a “blunt exchange” (the Post’s words) in the Oval Office with Bill Clinton. The Post says that Gore told Clinton that the Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s resultant low personal approval ratings had been a major cause of his loss. Clinton was, says the paper, shocked and responded “with equal force” that the problem was Gore’s failure to run on the administration’s record. The WP says that before the meeting the two had “barely spoken for a year” and that currently the camps around the two men have become estranged.
Filling a reporting gap Today’s Papers noted yesterday, the Wall Street Journal applies the Bush administration’s proposed tax cut to the finances of President Bush and Dick Cheney. The paper says that under the plan (using 1999 tax returns–the most recent the two men have released), Bush would save somewhere between $20,000 and $60,000, and Cheney more than a quarter-million dollars. If the estate tax were also repealed, the Journal reckons Bush’s heirs would save between $6 million and $12 million while Cheney’s legatees would be spared $10 million to $45 million. And 14 of 17 members of the Cabinet would also die happier.
The WSJ continues to pore over the Bill Clinton pardon list. Today, the paper reports on how a former associate White House counsel was a paid point man for pardonee Charles Wilfred Morgan III, who did three years on a cocaine rap in the 1980s. The paper sees a pattern; among other reps for pardonees are “another former White House lawyer, a former attorney general, a top House Democrat and former Vice President Al Gore’s Miami point man in the Florida recount.”
The WP reports inside that two days after being sworn in, Sen. Hillary Clinton formed a political action committee, to be known as HILLPAC, and is considering expanding it to take large “soft money” donations from individuals, unions, and interest groups.
The WP’s Al Kamen reports this is what happened when he recently dialed the number for the FBI’s weapons of mass destruction hot line: “Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice messaging system.”
Back to the Israel election coverage for a beat. The WP lead mentions, when referring to Shimon Peres, that he is a Nobel laureate but does not note that this is also true of Yasser Arafat when referring to him. This may have been a simple oversight (although the Post has committed this asymmetry before), but if the editors think that Peres’ Nobel is legitimate and Arafat’s is not, then they should make sure Post stories come right out and say that.