Leading article: No better time to break with Bush

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A week in the history of the special relationship began with Tony Blair a supplicant at the table of the US President, and ended with Israel on the brink of a ground war in Lebanon with the support of only two governments in the world: the US and the UK. On Monday, the British Prime Minister - greeted with asymmetrical informality, "Yo, Blair" - in effect asked George Bush's permission to go out and talk to the parties. Permission was refused. "I think Condi is going to go pretty soon," said the President. She will arrive today, too late to negotiate an immediate ceasefire, and giving every appearance of being there simply to defend Israel's right to escalate the violence.

Mr Bush, caught on an open microphone at the G8 in St Petersburg, was blunt about the call by Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, for a cessation of hostilities: "I don't like the sequence of it. His attitude is basically, 'Ceasefire, and everything sorts out.'"

Mr Blair appeared not to pick up straight away the hint that the President wanted to allow the Israelis to continue their onslaught. "I am perfectly happy to try and see what the lie of the land is," Mr Blair said. "But you need that done quickly because otherwise it will spiral."

Mr Bush's response was, in effect: let it spiral. Thus the emptiness of Mr Blair's claim of influence - and independence - was once again exposed. He offered to act as a mediator to urge restraint, was brushed aside, and ended the week as the backing vocal to the President's unconditional support for Israel. Little wonder that most people in this country feel that it is fair to describe their Prime Minister as Mr Bush's "poodle", according to today's Communicate Research poll for this newspaper. Little wonder, too, that most of those expressing an opinion feel that Mr Blair's dogged devotion has prevented Britain from playing a more constructive role in the Middle East.

What, we are entitled to ask once more, has this country gained from a foreign policy stance of such subservience? What have we gained - apart from a joint responsibility for a disastrous war in Iraq and an association with an Israeli policy of disproportionate self- defence? The Independent on Sunday abhors the Hamas and Hizbollah tactic of deliberately killing civilians and sympathises with the Israelis who have endured the terror of rockets for months. It is conceivable, even, that we might have accepted an element of disproportionality in Israel's response if there were any evidence that such a response was effective. But 15 Israeli civilians for 300 Lebanese? Even if half the Lebanese casualties were armed militia, that implies an "exchange rate", as Robert Fisk puts it, of 10 to one. And has Hizbollah been "significantly weakened", as is alleged to be the Israeli objective? No. The fact that the Israeli Defence Forces are now poised on the brink of re-invading Lebanon is an admission that the aerial bombing campaign has been a failure.

The alternative, of patiently strengthening the Lebanese armed forces in order to root out Hizbollah, possibly with international troops in a buffer zone on the Israeli border, is unattractive in many ways and fraught with danger. But it has to be a better option than encouraging Israel once again to fight an unwinnable war in southern Lebanon. That is the disastrous course that Mr Bush has taken. It will only help to recruit a new generation of fighters dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel. Now more than ever it must be in Mr Blair's interest, as well as being the right course, for the British government to show some independence.

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