WHEN Israeli tanks were terrorising Palestinian towns two years ago I wrote in this newspaper that the most powerful man in the world was not George W Bush but Ariel Sharon - because he had felt able to ignore frequent pleas from the White House to stop his military actions. Yesterday in Washington Mr Sharon confirmed his status. He persuaded Mr Bush to agree to decisions affecting Middle East peace which gave Israel everything it had asked for and took away from the Palestinians rights that have been fundamental to their cause for 50 years. Essentially, Mr Bush gave explicit support to Mr Sharon's plan to retain six settlements housing some 100'000 people on the occupied West Bank and rejected two main Palestinian “final status” claims, the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their original homes and the reinstatement of the original 1949 borders.

Explaining his decision to support what he called Mr Sharon's “historic and courageous actions” President Bush emphasised the need to recognise “new realities on the ground” since the passage of UN resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw to 1949 borders and even since he drew up his own road–map to peace two years ago.

Mr Bush did not specify what these “new realities” were but it is unlikely that the Palestinian Authority, the Arab world and the European nations which have supported the road–map will share the American view of reality in the Middle East.

Apart from the illegality and gross unfairness of yesterday's announcement to Palestine itself, its substance and the arrogant manner of its presentation will be deeply disturbing to all who have worked for a balanced settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian problem and will only exacerbate the festering situation in Iraq.


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