Furious Bush hits back at Sharon
Suzanne Goldenberg in Hebron, West Bank and Julian Borger in Washington
American relations with Israel plunged to their lowest point in a decade yesterday when the White House denounced as "unacceptable" statements by the Israeli prime minister comparing the US coalition-building in the Arab world to British appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s.
The Bush administration was reported to be furious with Mr Sharon's actions, and the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told journalists that the president felt personally affronted by the comparison to Neville Chamberlain and the discredited policies of appeasement in the run up to the second world war. Mr Bush is an avid admirer of Winston Churchill.
In an extraordinary speech, the Israeli prime minister had poured scorn on the campaign aimed at building an Arab consensus behind the campaign against terrorism.
Mr Sharon said: "Don't repeat the terrible mistake of 1938 when the enlightened democracies of Europe decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a temporary solution. Do not try to placate the Arabs at our expense... Israel will not be Czechoslovakia."
In a blunt response, Mr Fleischer said: "The president believes that these remarks are unacceptable. Israel could have no better or stronger friend that the United States and no better friend that President Bush."
In an unusual move, the angry message was relayed to Israel through three parallel channels: in a personal phone call from the secretary of state, Colin Powell; in a message conveyed by the US embassy in Israel; and a separate message passed on by the national security council.
Ariel Sharon further signalled his contempt yesterday for the US diplomatic strategy of mending fences with the Arab world, by launching the heaviest Israeli military offensive since the start of the Palestinian uprising last year.
In a pre-dawn assault, Israeli tanks and armoured bulldozers, helicopters, paratroopers, and ground forces seized the strategic rise of Abu Sneineh in Hebron, West Bank. The city was awarded to Palestinian control under US-sponsored peace accords in 1997.
Five Palestinians were killed in the offensive - including two blown to pieces by tank shells - and dozens injured
US-Israeli relations were notably rocky during the leadership of Mr Sharon's predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, who chafed against the constraints President Bill Clinton attempted to place on Israeli military actions.
But the last time the relationship was so overtly hostile was when Mr Bush's father took on Yitzhak Shamir 10 years ago, making vital loan guarantees conditional on an end to the building of settlements in occupied territory.
Mr Sharon's accusations of treachery against Washington also drew criticism in Israel.
"This was an unfortunate statement, historically mistaken, politically damaging, factually incorrect, and it deepens the sense of threat and strangulation that Israelis feel," said a commentary in Yedioth Ahronoth, the country's largest newspaper.
"It weakens us and insults our friends."
However, Washington reserved a portion of its anger for the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, for failing to rein in gunmen from his Fatah faction, and other armed groups.
Yesterday's thrust into Palestinian-ruled areas of Hebron came two days after gunmen belonging to Fatah shot and wounded two Israeli women, who were on a Sukkot festival pilgrimage at the Jewish enclave in the heart of Hebron.
In a telephone call on Thursday night, Mr Powell again urged Mr Arafat to deploy his security forces to enforce the ceasefire, and to begin arresting Palestinian militants in accordance with the truce.
The conversation prompted Mr Arafat yesterday to renew his call on armed Palestinian groups to stop attacks.
But by yesterday afternoon, another Israeli was shot dead in a drive-by shooting near the West Bank town of Tulkaram.
The scale of yesterday's military operations in Hebron removes the last pretence of a ceasefire, barely a week after Washington pushed the two sides to agree on a truce.
"It's the biggest operation in the West Bank since the start of the intifada," Israeli's military commander in the territory, Major-General Yitzhak Gershon, said.
The invasion eclipses previous Israeli incursions into Palestinian-ruled territory.
The Israeli army briefly entered Abu Sneineh in August. But by early afternoon yesterday, Israeli soldiers were bedded down with sleeping bags on the road side, suggesting that the forces had moved in for some time.