International Papers

Write Off Return

Monday’s Arabic papers led with a Palestinian attack in Gaza that killed four Israeli soldiers (a fifth was later killed in Hebron), putting in doubt the implementation of the Palestinian-Israeli “road map.” Meanwhile, Mauritania made a rare front-page appearance in many regional dailies following a coup attempt, the outcome of which still remains unclear.

The Gaza attack was a combined operation by three different Palestinian factions—Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade—with the aim of emphasizing their united opposition to the summit held last week in Aqaba, Jordan, involving President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The attack elicited this predictable headline from the London-based Al-Hayat, “The Opponents of Aqaba Respond With a Series of Attacks,” which the paper completed with: “Sharon Will Not Allow a [Palestinian] Return to Israel.” Beirut’s left-wing daily Al-Safir also juxtaposed news of the Gaza attack with Sharon’s statement before his Likud Party that no Palestinian refugees would be resettled in Israel after an agreement is reached, quoting him in the story as saying the “American administration understands this.” Granting refugees a right of return to Israel is a sore point for Sharon, who, like most of his countrymen, believes the ensuing demographics would alter the Jewish nature of their state. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz suggested the Palestinian attacks would not delay Israeli promises to dismantle a handful of uninhabited illegal outposts, perhaps as early as Monday in Gaza. However, the paper quoted a Likud minister saying, “My assessment is that the present Israeli government … will not take down even one settlement in the course of its current term, which will last at least four years. This will not be.”

The Palestinian attacks and Israeli statements highlighted what the road map is up against, particularly on such core issues as national rights and land. Palestinian opponents of the peace plan decried Abbas’ failure to mention, in his Aqaba speech, which was drafted by the Bush administration, Palestinian suffering or the right of return. The right-wing Israeli government wants such issues sidelined completely. In that context, the Saudi Arabian daily Al-Watan published a report from its Paris correspondent (citing “reliable American and European diplomatic sources”) relating that Sharon had rejected a French proposal to resettle 40,000 Palestinian refugees from Lebanon inside Israel (an idea purportedly first floated by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak). The paper also noted that the Bush administration rejected three Israeli demands, arguing they might lead to a collapse of the road map and provoke a crisis in American-Arab relations. Sharon’s first demand was that Arab states and the Palestinians issue a statement recognizing Israel as a “democratic Jewish state that has a right to live in peace and security in the region.” Second, that Abbas’ government make a statement “renouncing a right of return to Israel for refugees in exchange for Israeli willingness to agree to a temporary Palestinian state at the end of this year or the beginning of next year, after the Palestinians fulfilled all their security obligations.” And third, that the Bush administration give a statement to Sharon’s government supporting its stance on the need for Palestinians to abandon a right of return.

An article in Ha’aretz indicated the Israeli government’s intransigence might not reflect the current mood in Israeli society. According to the paper, a poll conducted by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Institute for Strategic Studies showed that “a rising majority of Israelis favors removing large numbers of settlements in the context of a future peace accord with the Palestinians, and that Israelis feel more secure and open to compromise than they did in 2002.” The poll revealed that 59 percent of Israelis would agree to remove all settlements located outside major settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, compared to 50 percent last year. Remarkably, the poll also found that, “asked if they would support a unilateral withdrawal from the territories in the context of a peace accord, even if that meant ceding all settlements, 56 percent said that they would, versus 48 percent last year.”

Meanwhile, confusion persists in northwestern Africa’s Mauritania more than a day after a military coup attempt against President Mu’awiya Wuld Sayyid Ahmad al-Tayeh. By Monday, a cautious consensus had emerged in the Arab media that the coup was faltering, although Qatar’s Al-Jazeera said on its Web site that explosions could still be heard in the capital, Nouakchott. Artillery fire from south of the capital, where the coup plotters were stationed, was being directed at the north of the city, near the presidential palace. The palace, which had allegedly fallen to the rebels earlier, was said to be in the hands of the president’s men, though the fighting continues. The London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that the coup was led by a Baathist officer recently expelled from the army and quoted opposition figures in Algeria saying the president’s son had been killed. The Paris daily Le Figaro published an AFP wire report carrying a French government denial that al-Tayeh had fled to the French Embassy in Nouakchott. The article mentioned that the coup came amid tension in Mauritania following the arrest of 32 Islamist militants. The president had also provoked domestic discontent by establishing close ties with the United States and diplomatic relations with Israel. [Update: As of Monday afternoon, the BBC is reporting that the president’s men foiled the coup attempt.]