Leading article: Once again, an opportunity to end the killing has been squandered

The one factor that could end the crisis now - pressure on Israel from the US President - will not be forthcoming

The Independent

Published: 29 July 2006

In the end, all we were promised was more delay. In a joint press conference with Tony Blair in Washington yesterday, President George Bush announced his desire for a multinational force to be established in Lebanon by the United Nations Security Council "on an urgent basis". Needless to say, this falls far short of the call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire that the conflagration in Lebanon so urgently requires.

Nothing emerged from yesterday's announcement to suggest that there is going to be a swift end to the hostilities. The one factor that could end the crisis now and set a diplomatic resolution in train - pressure on Israel from the US President - will not be forthcoming. If Mr Blair set off for Washington with any intention to persuade Mr Bush to exert such pressure, he has badly failed. As to whether our Prime Minister even tried to do so behind closed doors, we can only guess.

Meanwhile, Israel continued its wholly disproportionate assault on Lebanon yesterday. And it is surely this question of proportionality that goes to the very heart of this present crisis. If the objective of the bombardment is to nullify the threat from Hizbollah, as the Israeli government claims, why has the entire Lebanese nation been targeted through the destruction of airports, roads and power stations? The truth is that this operation is less about Israel's immediate security than the wider politics of the region. The suspicion must be - as this assault continues to escalate - that Israel has used the pretext of the kidnapping of its soldiers to send a message to other states in the region such as Iran and Syria. This is no act of self-defence but a crude "show of force".

Hizbollah was, and manifestly remains, a threat to Israel - and should indeed be disarmed, as Mr Blair and Mr Bush stressed yesterday. But Lebanon was an increasingly prosperous, democratic, and pro-western state before Israel reduced much of infrastructure to rubble and drove hundreds of thousands of innocent Lebanese citizens from their homes. If the Israeli government has visited such destruction on what should have been a natural ally in the region, what might it do to those states it considers irredeemable enemies? Now this conflict has been allowed to escalate we risk finding out.

The Israeli government is out of control. And the United States should have reined it in some time ago. But never has an Israeli military operation enjoyed such indulgence from a US administration. There are disturbing signs that America considers Israel to be a proxy army taking the fight to hostile states in the region such as Iran and Syria - an impression yesterday's press conference in Washington did nothing to dispel. Of course, to actively stoke up a regional conflagration would be madness, both for Israel and the US. But it cannot be ruled out in the present extreme mindset that is prevailing in Tel Aviv and Washington. Talk from the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week of shaping "a new Middle East" gave no comfort. And her labelling of the deaths of innocents in Lebanon as the necessary "birth pangs" of such a project betrays a terrible callousness towards civilian suffering. How many more such "pangs" are to come?

What all this shows is that the Bush administration has learnt nothing from the bloody catastrophe that has unfolded in Iraq. Israel and the US are still wedded to the belief that violence and unilateral military operations will deliver peace and security in the region. The terrible notion that "facts on the ground" can be determined by bombing campaigns, rather than diplomacy, still holds sway. And after yesterday's White House press conference, we must conclude that our own Prime Minister has signed Britain up for more of this lunacy too.