Sharon's military tactics should not surprise anyone

'Bush could have consulted a few of the American diplomats who have known Sharon over the years'
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The Independent Online

So George Bush has shown that his patience with Ariel Sharon is not endless. The headlines have described him as getting tough with the Israeli leader. Tough? What has been administered is a slightly more rigorous tap on the wrist than is usual. The eternal "sources close to the White House" suggest that Bush feels Sharon is going too far. I really do find it hard to credit that an American president could be so naive. All Bush needed to do was speak to anybody who worked in the Middle East for Ronald Reagan back in the 80s and he would have found out very quickly how Mr Sharon works.

He might have called up former US ambassador Morris Draper who believed he had an agreement that Sharon wouldn't send the Israeli army into Muslim West Beirut but woke up one morning to find out they'd gone ahead anyway. This was the first occupation of an Arab capital by the Israeli army.

It was the Reagan administration that personally guaranteed the security of the civilians of West Beirut and that watched in impotent horror as images of murdered Palestinian civilians were beamed back to Washington in September 1982. That was after Sharon had ordered Christian militiamen into the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila to "root out terrorists". Sharon was censured by an Israeli commission of inquiry but there were to be no war crimes charges against him. He went on to fight another day.

If he had been a little more eager to learn, Bush could have consulted a few of the American diplomats and political figures who've known Sharon over the years. He might have learned that Sharon has never really trusted America and has long believed Israel should not be dependent on US support. But Bush was apparently very taken with Sharon when he visited Israel before running for the presidency. He had a personal helicopter tour of the country with Sharon as his guide. Afterwards he said he had a "feel" for the place and that no other foreign trip had had quite the same impact on him. Heaven preserve us from men who follow instincts but won't do their homework.

Bush has waffled all week about the necessity for a political solution, and he has given the impression that one could be close at hand. Is this one of his famous instincts or does he have some more tangible reason for hope. There hasn't been any serious politics since the debacle in the last days of the Clinton administration, yet we are treated to the fiction that if only both sides would stop killing each other a solution could be agreed. To appreciate the true difficulty, we should ponder some hard truths.

Most rational commentators and the majority of the international body politic agree that a solution must be based on the old formula of land for peace. The Saudi proposal was simply a recognition of this reality gilded with the offer of a broader regional peace. But this presents Ariel Sharon with a choice no leader of his background would want to face.

When he was cast into the political wilderness after the Sabra and Chatila massacres, Sharon rebuilt his base with the help of the settlers. He has been a driving force behind the colonisation of Palestinian land. Is anybody asking themselves how a man with this political debt, but also with his own passionate support for settlements, is going to be party to destroying the settlers' dream? Even if he were to undergo a miracle conversion to the idea, many in his political constituency would denounce him as a traitor. Yet in the absence of such a deal there will be endless war. No colonised people will sit and watch their land being eaten away.

We are living through the most fateful days since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Fateful for Israelis and Palestinians but also for America. Does Bush have any idea how much hatred is boiling in the Arab world as the images are beamed across the region?

And then look at Sharon's potential partner in negotiations. What kind of moral abandonment does it take to proclaim your desire for martyrdom when suicide bombers are on the rampage? And please don't give me any of that glib rubbish about needing to identify with the oppressed, or worse still the sickening notion that walking into a café and blowing innocent civilians to pieces is the "inevitable" consequence of Israeli oppression. A reader wrote to me a few months ago saying my criticisms of suicide bombings reflected a failure to understand that other people might seek a different means of expressing their dissent. No dear reader, suicide bombing isn't war but brutal execution based on an odious notion of collective guilt.

Yet on a few occasions in the past week sane voices have emerged from the sludge of sound bites. There were Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi on the Palestinian side both sounding weary yet still ready to negotiate a way out of the madness. And there was Yossi Beilin, the Labour Party member and former justice minister, criticising Sharon's war. Beilin said what any rational mind would recognise as fact: a strategy based on war will end in disaster. Beilin and Erekat and Ashrawi represent hope. Only the vaguest glimmer but enough to forestall despair about the Middle East. You don't see much of the other Israel on your television screens.

The image of fear and anger is real enough, but the country of intelligent debate and serious thinkers hasn't been destroyed. Not everybody rallies behind the bellicose rhetoric of Sharon's spokesmen or supports the invasion of the occupied territories. I have heard more passionate debates about politics in Israel than I ever have in Britain, so I believe peace is not only possible but that there is a constituency in Israel ready to engage with like-minded people on the Palestinian side.

I had a call from an Israeli friend this week who has been talking to his wife about leaving the country. They are sick with worry that their children will one weekend night be killed by suicide bombers. Yet my friend has decided to tough it out. He hasn't given up on peace. I think of him and his family, but also of friends in Ramallah, whenever I hear someone here talking about the impossibility of peace, and the desirability of letting both sides fight it out. Easy words. And cheap and reckless words.

We should be glad that President Bush has at last become engaged. It should have happened a great deal sooner, but it's not too late. When Colin Powell goes to the region next week he must make it clear that violence can no longer be an obstacle to embarking on political talks.

It will take great American pressure to bring Sharon to the table and the Arabs must impose similar pressure on Yasser Arafat to make an unambiguous condemnation in Arabic of suicide bombing. Arafat must repeat this condemnation every time there is an attack. He may not be able to control Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whatever his power over his own forces, but he needs to be seen to make every effort. He has not done that yet.

In such times of madness it is worth shouting the self-evident: in the absence of politics, violence will always rush in to fill the vacuum. It is time George Bush used the power at his disposal to make both sides hear each other and to make space for the saner voices.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent