The Columbia disaster led most Middle Eastern papers Monday, though the Arab press also prioritized news on Iraq, particularly leaked reports of America’s alleged war plan.
In an editorial, the Jerusalem Post remembered Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon by linking his fate to an earlier Jewish tragedy: “It was just six decades ago that Ramon’s mother and grandmother emerged from the horrors of the Holocaust. As Ramon himself pointed out, it was no less than a ‘miracle’ that he was being sent to represent the sovereign Jewish state as its first astronaut.” Ha’aretz, meanwhile, noted that NASA had taken the unusual step of allowing an Israeli to participate in the identification of the astronauts’ remains after an embassy official in Washington had “stressed to the NASA representatives the significance Israel and the Jewish religion placed on the identification of [Ramon’s] body parts … and his burial in Israel.” Amnon Dankner, editor of Ma’ariv, brought Iraq into his evocation, commenting that “death struck the Israeli and American astronauts at a time when America is preparing for a war on Iraq to remove a threat that is also a threat to Israel, a war in which we may sustain an Iraqi attack.”
Arab papers also focused on the shuttle disaster. Lebanon’s Al-Mustaqbal, which is owned by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, declared: “Anxiety from space surprises America.” The piece appeared over a cartoon that unintentionally pandered to anti-Arab stereotypes, showing a fierce-looking Arab on a flying carpet aiming his slingshot at Uncle Sam who was fleeing in a space ship. In an adjoining story, the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent argued that Israeli officials sought to exploit the disaster to strengthen their alliance with the United States, preferring to draw attention to Ramon rather than “the more common images of explosions among crowds, tanks overrunning narrow streets in small towns, and [Israeli] soldiers pointing their guns at children.”
Another Beirut paper, Al-Nahar, whose Greek Orthodox owners have an enduring fascination for all things Russian, drew attention to Russia’s launch of the unmanned Progress M-47 rocket on Sunday, declaring, “Russia comes to America’s assistance in space.” The paper was referring to the rocket’s resupply of the International Space Station, where two Americans and a Russian currently reside. The three had hoped to return to Earth in March in the shuttle Atlantis but may see their stay extended in light of NASA’s grounding of the shuttle fleet.
France’s Libération provided a coda to Columbia’s fate in an op-ed titled “Humility”: The shuttle disaster, coupled with the Sept. 11 attacks, showed that the Bush years could not be considered happy ones. “While everywhere in the world public opinion worries about the consequences of war in Iraq, some think they see a bad omen in this latest drama.” The disaster should be a lesson in humility and show the United States “that whatever its financial might, its scientific know-how, its technological prowess, its training of men, it cannot control all, dominate all, foresee all, parry all.”
Humility doesn’t appear to be the Bush administration’s controlling emotion as it prepares for war in Iraq. Several Arab papers drew attention to two reports on the alleged U.S. war plan, published Sunday in London’s Observer and the New York Times. The plan calls for a knock-out attack in the first 48 hours with 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles, to be swiftly followed by a ground invasion from the north and south. American airborne troops would seize oil wells to prevent them from being torched. The Observer speculated, “Details of the military planning appear to have been leaked to coincide with President Bush’s assertions last week that he would ‘welcome’ the departure of Saddam and his family if that meant war could be avoided, suggesting renewed approaches to persuade him to quit voluntarily.”
The London-based Al-Hayat mentioned the war-plan reports in the context of news that Iraq had agreed to allow U2 overflights on behalf of U.N. weapons inspectors, after initially refusing to do so. The paper implied that Iraq had bowed to U.S. pressure, reminding readers, as did Al-Nahar, that this week will be decisive, with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell preparing to give evidence Wednesday to prove that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction.
With war a virtual certainty, it was announced Sunday that Arab foreign ministers would hold an emergency meeting in Cairo in mid-February to discuss Iraq. For Beirut’s English-language Daily Star, the real test will be whether the Arab summit scheduled for March in Bahrain can be moved up so that it occurs before the war; even then “it has to actually use the event to act forcefully.” The paper called on the summit to ask Saddam Hussein to leave power, advising it also to address “the international community in general—and the United States in particular—in a language other than that of desiccated dogma.”