Leading article: The onus is on Mr Olmert

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The Independent Online

This newspaper is pro-Israeli. We support the right of the state of Israel to exist, and sympathise with the Israeli people, who live in fear of terrorists who are intent on killing civilians indiscriminately. We share the frustration of the Israeli government: having withdrawn from Gaza and, longer ago, from southern Lebanon, terrorists are now using both territories to fire rockets into residential districts.

It is precisely because we are pro-Israeli, however, that we are so critical of the response of Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, to terrorist attacks. In both the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, Mr Olmert has elected to impose collective punishment on entire populations for the sins of a tiny minority. This response is utterly counter-productive at almost every level - except in the shortest of terms with domestic Israeli opinion. It is counter-productive, first, on the ground. Hizbollah is not exactly popular in Lebanon, although it draws on general anti-Israeli sentiment. That sentiment has been greatly increased by the bombing of bridges, fuel stores and the airport, and the inevitable collateral civilian casualties.

If the Lebanese government was ineffective in policing Hizbollah before, the question of whether this one-sided aerial offensive will strengthen its resolve is irrelevant: it still lacks the capacity. In Gaza, the terrorists enjoy greater support from the Palestinian population - Hamas, an organisation committed to the destruction of Israel and to the use of suicide bombing against civilians to achieve it, has just been elected to govern the Palestinian Authority. Yet the Israeli response only hardens that support.

On the world stage, too, Israel is damaging itself. It should be in a strong position. The United Nations has instructed the Lebanese government to root out Hizbollah. The international community - including the US - stands ready to support a secure and viable Palestinian state if it is prepared to live in peace with Israel. Yet all this is undermined by the appearance - indeed, the reality - of Israel bullying its neighbours by force of superior arms.

Israel used to be admired for the skill, daring and intelligence with which it fought for its national survival; now it is regarded as a regional military power blindly incomprehending of and insensitive to the injustices it has visited on the Palestinian people.

No one suggests that the Israelis should simply accept the rain of terrorist rockets, or the reign of suicide bombers, or the kidnapping of its soldiers. Yet a proportionate response is essential to winning the wider battle for world opinion, on which the ultimate prospects for security - for both Israelis and Palestinians - depend.

For all Hizbollah's loud-mouthed talk of "open war", everyone knows (a) that it is incapable of waging such a thing, and (b) that the Israelis, after their occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, have no appetite for resuming an asymmetrical land war.

Regional war is not in prospect, but the long term looks as bleak as ever if Israel and its enemies remain locked in this self-destructive spiral. It will be broken only if Israel exercises restraint. If George Bush were a true friend of Israel, he would urge Mr Olmert to do so.

And he would put meaningful and sustained pressure on America's ally to stop building illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Until then, genuine friends of both the Israelis and the Palestinians can only mourn the wilful determination of leaderships on both sides to make an eventual settlement ever less likely.