An Israeli soldier going from Tel Aviv to an assignment in the Gaza Strip travels about 40 miles south - and about 50 years back.

Perhaps the distance to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is even greater.Tel Aviv is a modern Western city complete with nightclubs, beaches, modern shopping areas, clean residential areas and commerce - everything you'd expect in a major metropolis.

Less than an hour's drive to the south is the Gaza Strip.

Even before the now 3-year-old intifada, or uprising, the Gaza Strip was an economically depressed area. Now - littered with garbage, lined with grafitti-covered walls and patrolled by rifle-toting Israeli soldiers - it looks like a war zone.

While I was there, I met a Dutch diplomat who was 10 years old at the height of World War II.

"This city," he said, "looks like Europe during World War II. I had no idea it was so bad."

The contrast between the two cities is strangely symbolic of the challenges that face those trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. There's a big difference between the two positions.

"The problems are the making of the West," Ahmad Qatanani, director-general of Palestinian affairs for the Jordanian government, told me, referring to how the area had been divided after World War I and again in 1947.

And, despite stiff opposition from Israel, most Arab nations think the West - or at least the United Nations - should solve the matter.

And though Israelis apparently want little, if any, help from outsiders, they do have a natural ally in the West.

One reason is probably religion.

Most Westerners were raised in a Christianity that is aware, at least implicitly, of Judaism through the writings of the Old Testament. Most Westerners are not nearly so familiar with Eastern culture or the religion of the Arabs.

Another reason might just be orientation. Let me illustrate.

When a Portland-born Israeli police officer I met while walking in the Arab sector of East Jerusalem learned I was an American, he suggested that I'd prefer spending my time on Ben Yehuda Street in the Israeli sector of West Jerusalem.

I took his suggestion, and I have to admit that while in the area - essentially an outdoor shopping mall - I didn't feel like I was in a foreign country.

Israel, to a large degree, is a Western nation headed by Western-oriented politicians. Americans, I suspect, are just more comfortable with that.

Palestinians, on the other hand, are still trying to learn the Western game.

When I asked Randa Adnan Ahmad, a Palestinian college student in Jordan about the intifada, she told me that she wanted me to get her message to America.

"We were having hope that the world would move to save us, but after 30 or 40 years, no one has moved. So we must take this land with our hands. I want our sound to get to America," she said. "Palestinian people must learn English only to make Americans understand their feelings, problems and anger."

But even that, according to one American observer, probably isn't enough.

The Palestinians "are now too far out of touch with reality," he said from his Jerusalem office. "They tend to blame America and are waiting for America to wake up one day and solve the problem. But that's not going to happen.

"Liberation will come only from indigenous leadership. The answer for the Palestinians is strong local leadership with an international understanding. They need clever political thinkers who will lead - and others who will follow."

However, he does believe there is a solution, "but it isn't close . . . There will come a point when Israel wakes up and says, `It just isn't worth it.' "

And eventually "both sides are going to have to learn to live with each other - because neither is going to go away."

But for now, the "voices for moderation and concilation are quiet . . . and the fringes on each side are getting more powerful. Right now it is more important to win than to resolve the conflict. But no one will win by dominance."

But at least one Israeli isn't so optimistic.

"There is not one known case where conflicts of this sort have been solved by diplomatic means," said Yosef Goell, political analyst and writer for the Jerusalem Post. "Anyone who says `We're looking for the right diplomatic formula' doesn't know what he's talking about. This has nothing to do with Arabs and Jews. It has to do with intensity, emotions and identity and patriotism - not just real estate. These are the kinds of things people go to war over."

As I was leaving Gaza for my flight from Tel Aviv, I was driven in a United Nations car by a Palestinian, the father of six children and a lifelong resident of Gaza. It was a strike day, meaning most businesses were closed, and we found ourselves in the middle of an IDF convoy patrolling the almost-lifeless town.

The driver, who spoke broken English, was rather quiet and noticeably tense. We passed three or four military vehicles, each occupied with stern-looking armed Israeli soldiers.

"We don't like to stay in these things," the driver said, referring to the convoy, "because we might get hit with a rock."

After passing the last vehicle, he seem relieved.

"Such is our life in Gaza," he said.