AUSTIN -- Since we have declared war on a noun, we are now by definition in the definition business. The shortest version of our definitional problem, as we see in attacks from India to Israel, is that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, writes in a scathing essay, "We might as well be sending the 101st Airborne Division to conquer lust, annihilate greed, capture the sin of pride." Since President Bush has given us his own somewhat exuberant definition -- "We go forth to defend freedom, and all that is good and just in the world" -- we can only hope there will be no further mission creep.

Hendrik Hertzberg, in a New Yorker essay, makes the useful point that while Israelis kill Palestinians and Palestinians kill Israelis, it is wrong to imply moral equivalence: "Innocent Palestinian civilians, including children, have indeed been killed, often carelessly, and that is bad enough. But they have not been 'targeted.' For Hamas and Islamic Jihad, however, the killing of innocent Israeli civilians, including children, is deliberate, premeditated and desired." While I doubt the distinction is of much consolation to the mothers of children who end up as collateral damage, it's certainly worth making.

In yet another essay (lots to read these days), Robert Friedman reminds us in The Nation, "In the 1980s, a messianic Jewish underground, which staged bombing attacks on democratically elected Palestinian West Bank mayors and machine-gunned Palestinian students who were eating their lunch at Hebron University, was caught planning to blow up the Muslim holy sites and replace them with the Third Jewish Temple." It 's quite possible those folks were encouraged by the fact that the then-prime minister of Israel was Menachem Begin, himself a one-time terrorist. Definitionally speaking, we probably need a separate category for terrorists who become prime ministers.

All this is by way of backing into a discussion of the current mess in the Middle East and our role there. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was flatly stated by George Mitchell on a Sunday chat show: "There is no military solution."

As all good mothers know, the first step is to get the kids to stop hitting each other. That's the ceasefire, the separation of the combatants -- and if it takes putting in an international force, that's what it takes. Then we can move on to the real problems.

President Clinton had the two sides so close to a settlement summer a year ago, we know this can be done. It is a doable deal. In the American press, Yasir Arafat took full blame for letting that deal get away, although some were given pause when they saw the proposed map, which did have an unfortunate resemblance to bantustans.

And that's the real problem: The map was drawn that way to protect the settlers on the West Bank. The settlers will have to be gotten off the West Bank. Actually, that's what you negotiate -- how many stay and where. It was crazy to ever let them build to begin with, it's been a bad idea ever since, and it gets worse every day.

Since some of the settlers are among the most obdurate of Israelis -- indeed, a few of them fit the definition of terrorist -- this will not be easy or pleasant. We begin, naturally, by buying them out. If all it takes is money -- and that assumption is optimistic to the point of idiocy -- we should pony up and count ourselves lucky to pay.

The next question is: Is this remotely possible with Ariel Sharon in office? Well, we'll have to find out, won't we? We have leverage with Israel, and we have to use it. Nothing unites warring parties like getting both sides mad at us -- the old common-enemy trick works every time.

There's little point in going into Sharon's history, but I do think it is disingenuous for uncritical supporters of Israel to write about this second round of the Intifada as though it had broken out spontaneously, like hives, and not mention that it was Sharon who deliberately touched it off.

His famous visit to the Temple Mount in the fall of last year was a deliberate provocation that had precisely the effect he intended -- it blew the lid off. The main problem with Sharon's policies is not that they don't work, but that they make everything so much worse.

Not that anyone ever claimed Arafat was a prize. The United States has no alternative but to force a solution. This awful situation is so dangerous it is insane to let it continue. If we think we can step briskly around the Arab world, rounding up Al Qaeda in the middle of all this, we're nuts. We'll get every friend we've got there overthrown.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.