As Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic prepared to join NATO this week, the Prague Post welcomed the event Thursday with the front-page headline: "Dreams do come true." The paper said, "The Czech Republic has come full circle from underdog in the dark days of fascism and communism to a member of the world's strongest defense alliance." The weekly Warsaw Voice said that Poland's commitment to its new allies will be immediately put to the test by the crisis in Kosovo, to which it is pledging troops as part of a NATO peacekeeping force.
But in the West, Italy's commitment to NATO was looking wobbly. Thursday's Italian papers all led on Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema's statement to parliament that the agreements on U.S. NATO bases in Italy would have to be renegotiated if the United States failed to deliver justice for the victims of last year's Alpine disaster in which 20 skiers were killed by an American plane. A front-page comment in Corriere della Sera of Milan called this "an audacious challenge to the United States, but one full of risks." A revision of the 1951 agreements will be difficult, it said, because they were signed by all the allies, and above all it is important to avoid a new wave of anti-Americanism. "We should not forget how important the link with the sole superpower still is both to Italy and to all of Europe," it said.
The other big story in Italy was the visit of President Mohammed Khatami of Iran, the first by an Iranian leader to the West since 1979, which was soured by the coincidental, simultaneous presence in the country of Salman Rushdie, the British writer condemned to death 10 years ago by Ayatollah Khomeini for allegedly blaspheming against the Muslim religion in his book The Satanic Verses. While Khatami was in Rome, Rushdie was in Turin receiving an honorary degree from the university there, to the embarrassment and anger of the Italian government, which had not been informed.
In an interview Thursday with La Repubblica of Rome, Khatami said he was "deeply displeased to see that a person who has offended the feelings and the religious beliefs of more than one billion people of the Muslim faith throughout the world should be encouraged in this way, thus perpetuating the conflict between our civilizations." The president reiterated that "the Iranian government has explicitly stated that no action will be taken by our government to apply the fatwa," but also emphasized that that sentence has been "approved and confirmed by all Islamic countries."
The Iranian press took an even harsher line. Iran News accused the Italian government of "an incredible insult" and proposed "a reappraisal of policy towards Italy, a country which had been thought to be friendly." The supposedly moderate Iranian daily Kar-o-Kargar blamed Rushdie's presence on the influence on the Italian government of "groups of Mafiosi and of arms producers linked to the United States and Israel." The conservative Jomhuri Islami claimed that the Italian foreign ministry, under the influence of Zionists, tried to orchestrate Iranian protests against Khatami during his visit. On Khatami's meeting with the pope, Friday's Italian papers highlighted an incident at the end of their talks in which an unidentified mullah, a member of Khatami's delegation, approached the pope and said in English, "Can I do something?" When the pope replied, "Of course," the mullah leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
Arab press comment focused Thursday on U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen's Middle East visit and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's views on the Lockerbie dispute. The London-based al-'Arab said Cohen's Gulf tour had been successful as an arms-selling exercise but a relative flop politically because he had "failed to obtain the traditional show of collective Gulf support for the policy of aggression his country pursues against Iraq." Tarek Massarwa, a Jordanian commentator in the Pan-Arab al-Quds al-Arabi, blasted Arab rulers for distancing themselves from Washington's Iraq policy in public while colluding with it in private.
In Saudi Arabia, the leading daily Asharq al-Awsat quoted Col. Qaddafi as snubbing Egypt over its efforts to broker an agreement among Tripoli, London, and Washington for the trial to go ahead in Europe of two Libyan suspects in the 1988 bombing of a PanAm airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. Although Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Mousa stated that the Lockerbie dispute was the main topic in weeklong talks in Cairo between Qaddafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Libyan leader claimed that Egypt had no role in current efforts to reach a settlement, the paper said. Talking to a group of Egyptian journalists, he implied that he would prefer to rely on the continued mediation of South Africa. He said that Egypt, as an Arab state, enjoyed uneasy relations with Britain and the United States. "Such problems don't exist between Mandela and Blair or Mandela and Clinton," the paper quoted him as saying. "On the contrary, they are friends."
Interviewed Thursday by the Guardian of London, U.S. financier George Soros, taking his first public position on the new European currency, the euro, which recently plummeted 10 percent against the U.S. dollar, forecast that it is destined to be a weak currency because of fundamental flaws in the structure of the European Monetary Union. But the interview was published before the resignation from the German government Thursday of Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, which caused an immediate 2 percent rise in the euro's value. The resignation of "Red Oskar," as the British press dubbed him, was warmly welcomed Friday in London newspapers, which reported that champagne bottles had been opened in Downing Street.
In an editorial, the Times of London called Lafontaine's departure "good news for both Germany and Europe" offering "some hope of a saner German economic policy" but, stressing his continuing power on the German Left, said he was likely to be "the most unquiet ghost since Banquo." In France, Le Figaro and Libération played the story as a major setback for socialism in Germany, as did the newspapers in Italy. In Madrid, El País said it put both Germany's ruling coalition and the integration of Europe at risk.