As Inauguration Day approaches, some international papers on Monday looked at George W. Bush as he prepares for a second term, particularly his Middle East policy. Two events highlighted the regional challenges he will face. A weekend skirmish in Kuwait recalled the threat of terrorism, while ongoing fighting between Israelis and Palestinians underlined that the recent election of Washington favorite Mahmoud Abbas was just a lull in an enduring storm.
Like many papers worldwide, the International Herald Tribune prepared a story on Bush’s interview with the Washington Post published Sunday. Under the headline “The Voters Ratified His Iraq Policy, Bush Says,” the paper observed that the president regarded his victory in the November election as an “accountability moment” on the war. This provoked the derision of Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, who said Iraq was “a disaster because it’s the result of blunder after blunder after blunder. And it is George Bush’s Vietnam.” London’s Daily Telegraph focused on another part of the interview, noting that Bush “hinted he would watch his tongue” during his second term. He said he regretted using two expressions in the past three years: the “bring ‘em on” challenge to Iraqi insurgents, and the vow to get Osama Bin Laden “dead or alive” after the 9/11 attacks, which his wife Laura allegedly took him to task for. The paper also noted: “Mr. Bush would not be drawn into giving a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq and urged Americans to be patient as Iraq tries to move towards a democracy.”
There was front-page coverage in many Middle Eastern newspapers of the news that Saudis were part of an Islamist cell broken up by Kuwaiti security forces on Saturday in the town of Umm al-Haiman. One of the Saudis was killed, while Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star, citing a wire report, said two others “escaped in stolen cars.” The significance of Saudi militants spreading to neighboring Kuwait was obvious, as was the fact that the town where the shootout took place is located near the emirate’s oil-production facilities: “Militants fleeing get-tough measures in Saudi Arabia and Kuwaitis fresh from fighting U.S. troops in Iraq are at the heart of recent attacks in the oil-rich emirate,” the Star wrote. Kuwait’s Al-Rai al-Aam reported that the dead Saudi was wanted in Saudi Arabia, but not in Kuwait, and that the militants had intended to attack a number of targets, including “economic targets during the February [shopping festival], security centers … embassies, vital installations, and [to engage in] suicide operations.”
One thing, among others, allowing militant Islam to thrive is the low education level in the Arab world. That’s why a story in the daily Al-Hayat was particularly pertinent. According to a report by the Arab Organization for Education, Culture and Science, there are 70 million illiterates in the Middle East—an estimated 35.6 percent of the population above the age of 15. Egypt came in first with 17 million illiterates, followed by Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, and Yemen. According to Al-Hayat, the organization based its figures on a comparative study predicting that the Arab world would have the world’s highest percentage of illiterates in 2005.
One thing that will probably not change in 2005 is the dreary persistence of Palestinian-Israeli violence, which again escalated last Thursday after six Israelis were killed at a Gaza crossing, two days before the new president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was inaugurated. The fighting has involved Palestinians firing rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot and Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas. The French daily Le Monde paraphrased Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as saying he had allowed the army to respond “without limitations of time and using all means against terrorist organizations.” However, it also quoted the Israeli environment minister as saying: “This decision was taken too hastily. We must allow [Abbas] to manage things and give him time to fight against terrorism.” Indeed, the new Abbas-led Palestinian Authority, which was as much a target of the attacks as Israel, asked that Palestinian militants cease all military action.
Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim told the daily Ha’aretz that Sharon’s government “sought to strike a balance between relative restraint for the sake of … Abbas and military action to shield … Sderot.” Boim added, however, that Abbas would not be given much time to act: “Certainly, there will be no 100 days of grace.” In what could be an alarming development given the potential for civilian casualties, he said Israel was “weighing the future use of artillery in response to Palestinian attacks.” Revealing some confusion in the Israeli response, however, the Jerusalem Post disclosed that Sharon “was angered Monday morning over media headlines that Israel would act ‘with restraint’ against terrorism.” No less confusing was what Boim actually said: Where Ha’aretz had him deny the existence of a 100-day grace period, the Post quoted him as saying “the new PA chairman would have a 100-day grace period, during which he will have to prove that he is actively fighting to put an end to Palestinian terrorism against Israel.”