BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The news this week coming out the Middle East jolted many observers accustomed to hearing the usual sound bites from the usual suspects in the Israel/Palestinian conflict. The media here made much of Ariel Sharon's first ever utterance of the "O" word -- Occupation -- to describe Israel's presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But writers in the Arab press were less impressed. Peter Valenti, contributing editor for the World Press Review, closely watches the news being reported in the Arabic press. He says many of the op-eds reflect an underlying pessimism -- not only about President Bush's commitment to the fragile new peace process, but about Sharon's willingness to see the so-called "road map" succeed.
PETER VALENTI: A really interesting op-ed that came out of Jordan's Al Ra'i on the 28th written by Fayez Rashid was entitled The Israel Nes -which means No and Yes -- combined together. Sharon is sending signals where it sounds like he's saying yes, yes, I want peace, I want to negotiate - but at the same time he's sending signals covertly or not so covertly that say no, I don't want it. It's sort of a wink-nod, you-know-what-I-mean kind of situation. Also, numerous writers point to the fact that this is the man -- Sharon, that is -- who never voted for any peace treaty with Jordan, with Egypt or with the PLO.
BOB GARFIELD:Let's move to the Persian Gulf. In the wake of the war in Iraq there's been some nerves about the United States' increasing bellicose language with respect to Iran, at the latest accusing Iran of harboring Al Qaeda terrorists. What is the buzz in the Arab press about these developments?
PETER VALENTI: Arab writers in general have rushed to the defense of Iran. You have an op-ed coming out of Jordan's Ad-Dustour which emphasized that these threats coming from the United States is just falling in line with the U.S. plan to dominate the Gulf. The common opinion is, as emphasized in Ad-Dustour, Iran has much larger oil production capabilities than any other nation and obviously it's a member of the "axis of evil." Thus the United States is really going to focus intense pressure on Iran. An op-ed out of Al-Ahram which comes out of Egypt was just continuing this idea that the squeeze that is happening to Iran is reminiscent of the squeeze that was put on Saddam prior to the attack on Iraq, and it's just another form of psychological warfare. The United States knows that Iran has arrested members of Al Qaeda; it has participated to some degree in cracking down on terrorism.
BOB GARFIELD: Well that brings us to Saudi Arabia. The Islamist extremism that Saudi Arabia had exported for so many years has now come home to roost with the bombings in Riyadh. What are we reading from the Saudi press about its sudden very intimate experience with Al Qaeda?
PETER VALENTI: Well this is a really interesting story, and writers from a variety of the Gulf nations are weighing in. To begin with we had an interesting op-ed in Al Seyassah which is a Kuwaiti political daily. Up until those bombings, the Gulf states saw Al Qaeda as a security issue only. Now it's time to see Al Qaeda as not only a security issue but also an economic, social, political and even psychological issue. We saw an op-ed in Al Sharq Al Awsat on the 18th which was very pointed and said Saudi Arabia needs not only the strength in the ministry of interior to deal with Al Qaeda, but also the ministry of education. There needs to be reforms made. The Riyadh bombing enables Saudi Arabia to claim that it is not soft on terrorism, because if you look at this - these bombings in Riyadh, Saudis are victims too. And this was expressly demonstrated by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal. A lot of coverage was given to some interviews where he said, look we've been attacked too; we've been fighting Al Qaeda too.
BOB GARFIELD:Another Saudi minister -- Interior Minister Prince Nayif also had a remarkable statement during the course of the week that had kind of echoes of Ari Fleischer's notorious "be careful of what you say" remarks from a year or so ago. He urged the Saudi press to be a tool of social stability and to strengthen cohesion in Saudi society. Was he in effect telling the Saudi press to be careful of what it says and, and what was the response to that?
PETER VALENTI: Absolutely. I don't necessarily want to draw a direct parallel between what's happened in the United States between the Pentagon and the State Department but you essentially have a similar kind of conflict because as the Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal is making all these elated comments on how successful Saudi Arabia's counter-terrorism actions are proceeding. You then have Interior Minister Nayif cautioning or trying to limit the amount of information that is going out in the press publishing.
BOB GARFIELD:As you look at the press coverage and as you try to understand the implicit conflicts that are bubbling up to the surface, can you come away thinking anything but that there are tectonic changes under way right now that will soon come quaking to the surface?
PETER VALENTI: Absolutely. We, we see a lot of interesting develops in the Gulf in particular, and Saudi Arabia is the best example. Obviously some kind of change is going to happen there --there's so much talk about it -- references being made by a variety of ministers, and there's a lot of pressure in the form of groups, intellectuals, leaders of the business community making petitions to the king, but also in the number of op-eds and editorials from the major newspapers which are calling for change, democratization, inclusiveness in Saudi governing.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Peter, as always, thanks very much.
PETER VALENTI: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Valenti who teaches Near East Civilization at New York University is a contributing editor for World Press Review. [MUSIC]