It's the turn of the kings and knaves

<em>Middle East War</em> - So peace is up to Arab leaders? Lindsey Hilsumin Bethlehem finds the pros

Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's former prime minister, sat against a backdrop of the Jerusalem skyline with the Israeli flag, and did half a dozen TV interviews on the trot. I was number six. I asked whether - given the experience of Northern Ireland, South Africa and a dozen other conflicts ended by negotiation - he really believed that there could be a military solution to the problems between Israel and the Palestinians. "There's ONLY a military solution to terrorism!" he shouted. "We're not going to have a political process with the Palestinians when Yasser Arafat's terrorist empire is allowed to continue!"

I asked about Europe's disapproval.

"We don't care," he said, "because 60 years ago Europe didn't lift a finger when Jews were being slaughtered." His brow was beaded with sweat as he leant forward and pointed at me. "Twenty years ago, when Israel bombed Saddam Hussein's atomic bomb factory, the entire world condemned us. But my God, we saved the world!"

Arabs fear that, far from saving the world, Israel's actions in the past two weeks may lead towards the abyss. "Do you people not understand how dangerous this is?" shouted a Lebanese friend as he watched Israeli tanks in Bethlehem on one satellite channel and, on another, demonstrations in the capitals of the Arab world being put down with water cannon and tear gas. "Don't you see that if America doesn't stop Israel, all these corrupt and unpopular governments in places like Egypt and Jordan can fall? And then what will you get? Bin Laden!"

All over the Arab world, people are glued to al-Jazeera and other satellite TV stations. Midweek, Israel deported the correspondent from Abu Dhabi TV, and raided his offices. But the problem is the message, not the messenger: Arabs do not like seeing Palestinian men handcuffed and blindfolded by Israeli soldiers, Arafat reduced to giving interviews by candlelight from a bunker and the streets of Ramallah reduced to ruins.

George Bush seems to think he can manage this dangerous moment by a classic diplomatic tactic - saying one thing and doing another. The American spin machine was demanding loudly that Ariel Sharon start withdrawing troops from the West Bank immediately, while Colin Powell was still meandering around the region, giving Israel a few more days to mop up in Jenin and Nablus.

But the "moderate" Arab leaders - as the Americans call them - fear being destabilised by the anger of their own populations. So Israel and America have developed a new plan for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East that brings in leaders such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, while bypassing Arafat.

Sharon and Bush use the same language. Israeli leaders refer to Bush's global "war against terrorism" in every public statement. Bush, meanwhile, echoes Sharon's statements that Arafat is a terrorist, and said in his first major speech on the Middle East that "responsible Palestinian leaders and Israel's Arab neighbours must step forward and show the world they are truly on the side of peace".

A few days later, Sharon told the Knesset: "I renew my call today to hold such a meeting between me and the moderate and responsible leaders in the Middle East."

So Middle East leaders are in a bind. If they buy the American/Israeli initiative, they risk stirring up the anger of their restive populations. But if they go with the popular mood, they will be on the wrong side of the line in Bush's "with us or against us" fight against terrorism. And American support is crucial because it bolsters their corrupt and weak governments with aid and diplomatic support.

In Bethlehem, they are almost beyond caring. Farouk Salhab scrambled up the pile of rubble that landed on the staircase when the Israelis shelled his warehouse. His carpet and linen shop near Manger Square is now occupied by Israeli troops besieging the Church of the Nativity. "What can we do?" he shrugged. "You need to know that the Arab world and the Israelis, Americans, Europeans - the whole world - is against us, the three million Palestinians."

The afternoon I visited Bethlehem, the Israel Defence Force lifted the curfew in the town - or, rather, in part of the town. People only learnt which part by the positioning of IDF snipers, who shot around them if they tried to move in the wrong place. We were pinned down under fire, watching as three nuns tucked the skirts of their white habits under their arms and legged it. An old man limped across with his young son.

I rang the IDF and got a young woman who snapped: "If they're out, it means the Palestinian leadership is trying to harm its own people by telling them to move around."

Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon are right. If you kill or arrest thousands of Palestinian men, and keep the rest of the population cooped up in their houses, it will stop suicide bombing for a while. If you imprison the Palestinian leader and destroy his administrative and police base, then he cannot provide leadership. That is a military solution they can impose. But it seems that the political solution they want depends on a handful of corrupt and insecure Arab leaders who will decide whether it is in their best interests to back Yasser Arafat as the Palestinians and their own populations want, or to ditch him as the Americans demand.

Lindsey Hilsum is diplomatic editor for Channel 4 News