Oliver Miles: Is there any way out of this mess?

For years, the world has put the Middle East in the 'too difficult' tray and left it to the US
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The Middle East is in a worse mess than at any time I can remember. Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon are at war or on the edge of war. Israel and the West Bank are bleeding. Is there a way out?

A month ago, attention was on Gaza. Having argued that negotiation with Arafat was impossible, Israel and its supporters tried to starve the newly elected Palestinian government into submission. Britain and Europe followed America in refusing to talk, giving the coup de grâce to the policy of promoting democratic reform in the "new Middle East". When Hamas countered by abducting an Israeli soldier, Israel's reaction was to kill at least 150 Palestinians and destroy the Gaza power station, a war crime which has condemned some of the most miserable people on earth to even greater misery without water or sewage.

Hizbollah followed Hamas's example by abducting two Israeli soldiers. This was an act of aggression and Israel had every right to respond, but not with another indiscriminate military campaign which has shaken Lebanon to its foundations. The world called for restraint and an immediate ceasefire; only Washington and London quibbled. In Britain, Kim Howells, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw and William Hague have shown at least some human understanding; we await a word from our PMs in waiting, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Why is the region in a mess? George Bush and Tony Blair explained their shared understanding of the big picture in Washington on Friday. Against the reactionary and terrorist groups trying to stop progress towards democracy, liberty and human rights. stands a more hopeful ideology called freedom, which, in Bush's words, "scares the ideologues, the totalitarians, those who want to impose their vision. It just frightens them, and so they respond. They've always been violent."

So it's black hats and white hats. The trouble with this childish vision is that reality doesn't match up to it. The real problems are more uncomfortable. For years, Britain and the rest of the world have put the Middle East in the "too difficult" tray and left it to America. America is incapable of dealing with the problem because of its ingrained bias towards Israel. The Arabs, hopelessly outgunned, have responded over the years with an unpredictable crescendo of new horrors. And Israel has pursued a policy of colonial expansion and the "iron wall".

At the heart of the matter is the Arab/Israel dispute. The outline of a settlement has been clear for more than a generation. The key concept in the "Road Map" is that Israel and the Arabs should immediately and simultaneously take various steps towards negotiation and ultimate agreement. America and her allies, principally Britain, have been distracted from this purpose by the so-called war on terror, and nothing has been done to get Israel to play its part, above all to stop building illegal settlements in the occupied territories. The peace process is stalled and extremists heartened, including those who call for the destruction of Israel. Arabs and Israelis continue to suffer.

The Bush/Blair meeting on Friday showed a welcome urgency: Condoleezza Rice to visit Israel and Lebanon immediately, the Security Council to meet to produce a new resolution and a peace force. The Rice mission has already been derailed by the Qana tragedy. The other concepts are welcome, but the idea that a UN resolution and a new kind of peacemaking force can be stitched up in a few days is fantasy, and strengthens the suspicion that Bush and Blair wanted to give time to the Israelis to destroy Hizbollah militarily.

The Security Council will face tough problems. China will have a word to say about the annihilation last week by the Israelis of a UN observation post and its occupants, one of them Chinese (it is curious that there appears to have been no expression of regret or sympathy from the US or British governments - Israel and Hizbollah will draw their own conclusions, as will potential troop contributors).

Tony Blair let slip in Washington that the process can work only if Hizbollah allow it to work. Who will negotiate with them? What inducements will be offered, or what effective pressure will be put on them, given that they have survived the worst that Israel can throw at them? Their fighters are predominantly from south Lebanon; will they be allowed to remain or be expelled? What role will the weak Lebanese army, many of whose soldiers are also Shia from south Lebanon, be expected to play? What will the mandate of the new force be?

The answers lie in the familiar grind of negotiation with all the parties. Blue helmets and peacemaking can support negotiation, but not replace it.

The writer is former head of the Near East and North African Department of the Foreign Office