The papers all lead with the Israeli Cabinet's narrow, but expected, approval of the U.S.-backed peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians, otherwise known as the "road map" for peace. The vote marks the first time the Israeli government has officially accepted the Palestinian claim to statehood, but some on the Cabinet made clear they had only voted for the plan to avoid a standoff with the U.S., and they expect, or perhaps even hope, that it will fail. According to early morning wire reports that the papers all miss, more than 70 people—most of them Spanish peacekeepers returning from Afghanistan—died as their Ukrainian transport plane crashed while trying to land at a foggy refueling stop in Turkey.
The New York Times' lead is the most upbeat, emphasizing the significance of a conservative Israeli Cabinet endorsing even the idea of an independent Palestine. In its fifth graph, the Times writes that the Cabinet's vote "indicated the extent to which the notion of Palestinian statehood, once confined to the radical left, has penetrated the Israeli mainstream—even as the society has swung to the right on other matters during almost 32 months of conflict."
The Washington Post runs the most pessimistic—or, perhaps, realistic—headline and lede: "The deeply divided cabinet attached key conditions to the initiative that could make implementation problematic and ultimately doom it." As everyone notes up high, Israel was careful to say it had only approved the steps outlined in the plan, not the plan itself, and the NYT goes on to say (after the jump) that those members of Sharon's Likud party who did vote for the plan did so only on the condition that the Cabinet also vote, as it later did, to renounce the Palestinians' long-standing assertion of a "right of return" for refugees to their homes inside Israel. The Los Angeles Times' lead reports that no one at the 6-hour Cabinet meeting actually spoke in favor of the road map, but rather in terms of appeasing the Bush administration, which has been vigorously pushing the plan. "We have to choose when we battle the U.S.," one minister told Israeli radio, "and now is not the time."
Already, the two sides cannot agree on where the road map leads. Palestinians assert that both sides' steps in the plan must be implemented simultaneously, but according to the LAT, the Israelis say the Palestinians must make the first move. When asked about the Palestinian interpretation of the map, a Sharon adviser said only one word to the LAT: "nonsense."
Still, as the NYT fronts and the LAT and WPreport inside, Israel's qualified approval of the plan opens the door to a peace summit among Bush, Sharon, and Palestinian PM Abbas in Egypt in early June. Because such talks would represent Bush's most direct involvement to date in the peace process, the papers note that they are far from a sure thing.
Following up on yesterday's lead story in the WP, the NYT reefers and the LAT stuffs U.S. allegations and Iranian denials that the country is harboring members of al-Qaida and is linked to the recent bombings in Saudi Arabia. Though the Post reported that the links were unambiguous enough to get State to acquiesce in severing ties with Tehran, the NYT reports only that a high-level meeting to discuss whether to suspend "further diplomatic contacts" has been scheduled for Tuesday. Moreover, the NYT reports that administration officials are uncertain how reliable the intelligence linking Iran to the Saudi bombings really is and the paper cites "some officials" as saying al-Qaida members might be operating without Tehran's approval.
The NYT off-leads the second half of Adam Clymer's two-parter on how the Democrats are screwed and the Republicans are like vultures circling their emaciated carcasses. Yesterday's piece detailed how the rich and powerful G.O.P. has set its sights on permanent hegemony, while this installment portrays Democrats as suffering from an identity crisis and a near-fatal lack of cash. Though slightly more Americans call themselves Democrats than Republicans, Clymer writes that "the Democrats' glass is not half full, but half empty, and it appears to be leaking." Democratic consultant Bob Shrum manages to stir a little more bling into his analysis: "It's probably a weakness than we're not real haters. We don't have a sense that it's a holy crusade. We don't have a sense that it's Armageddon."
Even as the NYT suggests that Dems need a grand crusade to rally around, the WP off-leads what some of the party's leading presidential contenders think might be the answer: universal health care. Though health care is polling below security, the economy, and jobs, Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Dick Gephardt have all proposed plans to provide it to most of the 41 million Americans who currently have no such insurance. Unlike Clinton's failed plan to nationalize health care, these are all built on the existing system—not that they're at all cheap. Gephardt's plan, the most expensive, would cost $214 billion in its first year of full implementation.
Note to American newspaper readers during slow holiday news cycle: It seems Iraqis aren't happy with the U.S.-British occupation of their country. The WP goes inside with the hard-nosed, no-nonsense tone of the new American "civilian administrator," L. Paul Bremer, who has made clear that there will be no quick transition to Iraqi self-rule—and the NYT fronts Iraqi discontent about it. Not much news there, although the WP's story buries a revealing quote in its kicker: Despite all Bush's high-minded rhetoric about how the U.S. is liberating the Iraqi people, Bremer said yesterday, "We're not going to end up with another strongman here. But it will also not be the same as our democracy."
According to a story inside the NYT that seems to be missing quotes from U.S. officials, the head Iraqi oil official asserted yesterday that Iraqis will control the country's oil, determining which existing contracts they will honor and which new ones they will enter into. Or they will, once the occupiers work out some logistical details on their behalf: "I think they will issue instructions soon on all this," the administrator said. "But how do you open a letter of credit with the Central Bank? What would the fax number be there now? And who would be there to receive it?"
On the cover of the WP's Style section, Howard Kurtz quotes extensively from internal NYT e-mails that raise even more doubts about the reporting of NYT bioterror correspondent Judith Miller, whose front-page exclusives on illegal weapons in Iraq have been drawing criticism, especially, as Kurtz notes, from Slate's own Jack Shafer (here, here and here). It seems Miller's main source for her stories has been none other than the Pentagon's favorite Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi. Miller admitted as much in an e-mail to Baghdad Bureau Chief John "Pulitzer" Burns, who had excoriated her for filing a story on Chalabi without his permission. In her reply, Miller wrote that she has a special relationship with Chalabi and that "he has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper."
Still, TP wonders: How did Miller's Faustian sourcing agreement prevent her from mentioning Chalabi, or at least a "prominent Iraqi," as a major source? Also, speaking of sourcing, who's the leak at the NYT?