Each paper’s lead, and the top story in the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox, announces the start of Israel’s military response to the Passover massacre. After an unusual overnight cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that the “enemy,” Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, must be completely isolated, and then proceeded to do that by ringing his Ramallah compound with tanks and shelling it. Arafat is inside, but he will not be hurt, the Israeli defense minister promised. According to the Los Angeles Times the Israeli army’s orders are to ” ‘strike everywhere’ to destroy as much terrorist infrastructure as possible.” Sharon will call 20,000 reserve soldiers to active duty, a sign that the operation will be large-scale and long-lasting.
The Palestinians called the attack a declaration of war and asked the United States to stop the Israelis. The LAT gets a report from inside the compound from an Arafat adviser who called the situation “very grave” and then cited an example of his woes: “We’ve been trying to reach world leaders, but it’s early and they’re still asleep.”
The papers didn’t get a chance to get an American response to the Israeli offensive, which began during the night in the United States, but earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that if Gen. Zinni’s peace mission failed, the U.S. would support Israeli attacks on the Palestinians. There’s no word yet on whether Zinni’s mission will officially be declared a failure, but the New York Times says it is effectively over, at least for now.
Everyone reports Arafat’s last-minute attempt to stop the Israeli tanks with an appeal for a truce. He said he wanted to immediately implement a cease-fire without conditions, but, the NYT reports, after that announcement, he promptly rejected the draft cease-fire Zinni had been working on.
The violence continued as Arafat asked for the cease-fire: A Hamas gunman killed four family members in a home on the West Bank, and in the Gaza Strip another Palestinian stabbed two Israelis to death.
As this column went to press, four Palestinians and one Israeli soldier had been killed in the Israeli offensive, and a bomb had exploded in a supermarket in Jerusalem, according to wire dispatches on the papers’ Web sites.
The Arab peace plan seems to have been superceded by events, the NYT notes. Furthermore, the plan calls for Israel to meet conditions that it has never been willing to meet. With these caveats, the papers formally announced the Arab initiative’s terms—peaceful coexistence with Israel in return for a Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders—as the Arab League summit ended. Summit attendees adopted the plan unanimously. The peace proposal now represents the official policy of all the governments of the Arab League, apparently including those which did not attend the meeting in protest.
The papers remind that the Saudi proposal is really aimed at the Israeli public, since Arab leaders don’t believe Sharon will buy it. In fact, the NYT speculates, hard-line states like Iraq and Libya may have signed the proposal only because they knew it would not be implemented. The reporting doesn’t get any reaction from Israeli citizens. One Israeli official called it a “non-starter,” and another said it was “important.”
The NYT, a fan of the idea since the proposal was announced in its pages, relays in its lead editorial its firm belief that “undeniably … the proposal could provide a serious basis for negotiations.” The WP, which dismissed the proposal in an editorial yesterday, thinks the plan’s significance is hard to judge.
A second statement that the Arab summit produced praised the Palestinian fight against Israel. The WP reports that Arab nations pledged $150 million to the Palestinian uprising. The NYT gets the Arab League’s attempt to spin (and not very well at that) the contradictory pronouncements. Well, the peace initiative is the new Arab attitude, senior officials said, and that other statement, is “old school” Arab thinking. The reporting doesn’t press the officials on which Arab attitude is dominant, but an NYT news analysis clears up what the league is really thinking: Arab leaders want the Palestinians to keep fighting until Israel agrees to their peace proposal (and how much room there is for negotiation is unclear). The piece bases its conclusion on hints that Arab leaders dropped during the summit.
Also to come out of the Arab summit was a new appreciation for Iraq, displayed on the NYT front in a photo of the Saudi crown prince and the leader of the Iraqi delegation dressed identically and embracing. In a message aimed at the United States, Arab leaders said that an attack on Iraq would be considered an attack on all Arab states. Iraq secured this support by recognizing Kuwait’s sovereignty and promising not to invade its neighbor again. The Kuwaitis, who once threw plates at Iraqi representatives at a similar reconciliation attempt, dismissed the overture as “sweet talk,” according to the LAT.
The papers report that the 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, will face the death penalty on conspiracy charges. It’s the first time the government has tried to get the death penalty for a defendant who is charged with conspiring to commit murder and not with playing a role in the murders themselves.