Speaking in what he clearly intended to be his most statesmanlike mode yesterday, President Bush nonetheless put virtually the whole blame for the atrocious situation in the Palestinian territories on to Yassir Arafat and those responsible for the suicide bombings. Iraq, Iran and Syria were also told to mend their ways. Israel, on the other hand, was not criticised for what it is doing and has been doing for the past five decades, and Mr Sharon's name was not mentioned. Mr Bush said that Israelis should be more respectful of the Palestine people's dignity and should distinguish between “ordinary people” and terrorists. He urged the Israeli government to withdraw its invading forces from the territory they have occupied in recent days; he did not, however, criticise the way in which this operation has been carried out. He said the Saudi peace plan, approved by the Arab League last week, was a hopeful development as a basis for a just peace in the future, together with the recent UN resolution 1402.

But missing entirely from Mr Bush's words was any understanding of why the Israeli/Palestinian problem has come to its present dangerous pass. There were no references to its deep roots, nor to the negative influence of Ariel Sharon on more recent events. Even when he mentioned implementation of the Mitchell Report, which called for an end to Israeli settlements building, he did not say that Mr Sharon specifically rejected that recommendation on the day the report was published. Nor did he mention that it was Mr Sharon who opted for confrontation rather than the peace process shortly after he came to office. President Bush's statement was far from even-handed. He failed to criticise Israel in any way and he did all he could to weaken Yassir Arafat's position. He showed no sense of the history of this conflict, preferring to characterise it as “either you're with the civilized world or with the terrorists”. We heard this “either/or” formulation in the immediate aftermath of September 11 but it is a crude way to approach the complexities of the Middle East. The seeds of this dispute were sown long before anyone had heard of a suicide bomber.

The American administration has been under considerable pressure domestically and internationally in recent days to bring its influence to bear on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Fundamental to the belief that the US has this power is the assumption that it is the only nation which Israel respects and will listen to. But there was nothing in Mr Bush's statement that gave any hope that he sees the need to use this influence to speak as plainly to Israel as he does to the Palestinians. He is sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East next week to try to bring about a cease-fire and create the conditions for a restart of negotiations. Mr Powell has been given an unenviable assignment: if he follows Mr Bush's line he will not be going as the even-handed negotiator that the situation needs but as a representative of a US administration that has already decided who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. At the end of his statement to the press yesterday Mr Bush turned quickly away to make clear he would not answer any questions. But a lone American voice shouted one question to his back. It was “Why now?”

RAY FLEMING

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