The New York Times and Los Angeles Times lead with the Israeli cabinet, which voted yesterday to approve both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evict Jewish settlers from Gaza and a new route for Israel’s controversial security barrier, which is being built through parts of the West Bank. The Washington Post leads with the difficulty the Army is having meeting its own recruiting goals, as the economy improves and the Iraq war makes enlistment less, ahem, attractive. USA Today leads with NASA’s to-do list for the first space shuttle mission since the Columbia accident. The paper plays it like high drama (“SHUTTLE SENSORS STILL IN QUESTION“), but engineers and astronauts say that the obstacles are surmountable by the May 15 launch date.
The LAT explains that the cabinet vote is historic because it marks the first time Israel has actually ordered a withdrawal from areas occupied in the 1967 war. But there are a few caveats: The NYT concedes that the Knesset could thwart the pullout by holding up Sharon’s budget, which must be approved by the end of March to avoid triggering new elections. In addition, the WP, which stuffs the story on page A20, says that each of the pullout’s four stages will have to be approved by another cabinet vote.
Almost more interesting, however, is a detail the NYT buries 39 paragraphs into its lead: In Rafah, in southern Gaza, a Palestinian security officer was killed and another wounded as they, in the Times’ words, “tried to destroy a Palestinian smuggling tunnel linked to neighboring Egypt.” Israel has often staged raids to look for such tunnels, and TP wonders whether someone could explain how significant it is that Palestinians are now taking the job seriously enough to die doing it. Of particular interest: Did the officer die fighting militants?
The day after President Bush’s arrival in Brussels (when Spaniards overwhelmingly approved the new EU Constitution), the papers say Bush plans to announce his support for a “stronger Europe.” Ever attuned to the subtleties of diplomatic language, the NYT takes this for an attempt to open a “new era” in relations. The LAT is also particularly strident, saying that Bush is rebuking some domestic conservatives who prefer a divided Europe. BYO salt: The administration, per usual, went out of its way to undermine Bush’s grand rhetoric, this time before he even delivered it:In the Post’s words, “The change was likely to be more of style than of substance.”
The NYT has a nice White House Letter about the quirkily forthright U.S. ambassador to Belgium, who is hosting tomorrow night’s “working dinner” between Presidents Chirac and Bush. “It’s a very big deal,” he said. “Advance people have been looking and measuring and walking and testing lights and moving chairs for the last two weeks.” The ambassador was also quite sanguine about having Bush as a houseguest for three days: “We go around and dust all the furniture, just like your mother-in-law’s coming over to see you.”
The Post says the Army began the fiscal year in October with only 18.4 percent of its yearly quota already in the pipeline; that’s less than half of last year’s starting figure and below the target of 25 percent it likes to have in the bag. USAT says these strains are forcing the Army to rely on aggressive retention strategies; it plans to spend $400 million on bonuses this year, including some as large as $150,000 for longtime special ops troops who re-enlist. Still, the objects in the mirror not as ominous as they appear: As of January 31, the WP admits, Army recruitment was back on track.
The NYT says Iraqi insurgents have been conducting a coordinated sabotage campaign on Baghdad’s fuel supply (as opposed to export) infrastructure, creating shortages that sow discontent. “There is an organization, sort of a command-room operation,” the Iraqi oil minister complained, showing the Times’ reporter a map of attacks that date back to November. “And they have succeeded to a great extent.” The LAT fronts a story on how these persistent attacks have led the U.S. to slash about $1 billion from the reconstruction budget to pay for increased security. And, just yesterday, according to the WP and LAT, Marines and Iraqi guardsmen launched a counter-offensive in Ramadi, cordoning off the city and entering it under cover of jet fighters.
Meanwhile, the WP buries a Reuters wire story on a Time magazine scoop: U.S. military officials are pursuing back-channel negotiations with leaders of the insurgency. Time learned about the meetings from the insurgent negotiator, a “middle-aged former member of Saddam Hussein’s regime.” While the administration wouldn’t confirm specific details, Pentagon officials told the magazine that diplomats and intelligence officers had been taking meetings. “I don’t meet all the insurgent leaders, but I’ve met some of them,” said Lt. Col. Rick Welch, a senior adviser to the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad. “The door is not closed, except for some very top regime guys.” Most encouraging of all is what the senior insurgent said when leaving his Green Zone sit-down: “We are ready to work with you.”
The LAT reports that Pfizer, a longtime member of an alliance that has been pushing Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, backtracked yesterday, saying, in an email, “[ W]e do not have a position on the current Social Security debate.” The NYT, for its part, runs a story on the plot afoot to paint the AARP as a bloated, liberal anachronism. “They are the boulder in the middle of the highway to personal savings accounts,” said the president of the group orchestrating the attacks. “We will be the dynamite that removes them.” The administration says it has nothing to do with the demolition, which is being masterminded by some of the same wizards who brought us the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the White House doesn’t want anything to do with a group that is attacking the AARP,” one of the group’s officials said. “We are not going to drag them into this mess.”
Gone-zo … Everybody catches late word that Hunter S. Thompson died yesterday afternoon at his home near Aspen, Colo., at the age of 67. The local sheriff said that Thompson was alone in his kitchen when he shot himself with a handgun. “I was at his house last week and there was nothing in his behavior that was different,” a friend told the LAT. “He was no more distraught than usual; he was often either up or down.