Key Points:

Barack Obama, still more than two weeks away from becoming President, faces an immediate challenge to his promise of "change". The latest Middle East war is another in a depressingly familiar pattern.

Israel has retaliated to rockets fired from Gaza, which were retaliation for Israel's blockade of the territory, which was retaliation for the territory's election of Hamas, an Islamic political party that does not recognise the Jewish state. Each step is a disproportionate response, escalating the conflict, and brings the region no closer to a solution to the source of so much resentment and terrorism worldwide.

If any problem on the new President's plate cries out for change it is this one. And there is much he could do if he is prepared to review the United States' approach to the problem. The US crucially backs Israel at all times. Often it is the only vote in the United Nations against resolutions critical of Israel's response to real or perceived threats to its survival.

With the backing of the world's superpower, Israel needs no other. It is possible that even were the US to sit on the sidelines of Middle Eastern tension, Israel would be more than a match for any combination of force in the region. But sitting on the sidelines is not a US option; the hole in Manhattan put paid to any notion that it ever was.

Americans have genuine interests in bringing peace to the Middle East and it must be plain to them their long-standing policy is not working. The tensions have only worsened since 2001 as President Bush has attacked the symptoms of Arab militancy rather than its cause. Even his attack on the symptoms was misdirected in the case of Iraq, and exercises in democracy have usually served only to prove the popularity of Islamic militancy.

Now Israeli voters are responding in kind. Something has to change.

In situations such as this change depends on the more powerful combatant. Arab resentment of the land taken from a nascent Palestine 60 years ago has not gone away and it plainly is not going to go away, especially while Israelis continue to seize homes and property for settlements in more recently occupied territories, and build walls to restrict Palestinians' movements, and impose a blockade on Palestinians who chose a party antagonistic to it.

Israel has the power, as it has demonstrated yet again, to punish any uprising, though not to defeat it. It also has the power to remove settlements on the West Bank, permit freely governed Palestinian states and give those displaced since 1948 the right to return to their homeland. Israel's refusal to contemplate the last has been the deal-breaker awaiting any previous peace initiative.

It is going to require something drastic to change on the Israeli side if the Middle East is ever to be settled. Lectures to Arabs and Iranians on democracy, civil rights and Israel's right to exist have not worked, nor has military and diplomatic pressure to that end.

Change may require something as drastic as reconsideration of Israel's need of a Jewish majority, the reason for its resistance to a full Palestinian right of return. Israel fears for its religious character if it ever makes that concession but Judaism was freely practised in the Islamic empire that preceded today's warring states.

Israel is not yet ready to contemplate change on such a scale, and Americans may not be ready to review their country's position. But a year ago many doubted Americans were ready to elect a black President. If he means to live up to the rhetoric of his election campaign, anything is possible.