CARTHAGE, TUNISIA -- Hannibal helped secure Carthage's place in history by marching elephants across the Alps and defeating Rome's surprised advance legions. But what happened next?

Not much, which is why it is hard to recall that part of the story. Hannibal did not move decisively to consolidate his conquest by marching on Rome or by making peace. He let his advantage melt away. One of his officers complained accurately to the youthful Carthaginian chief: "You know how to win a victory, but not how to exploit it."

The Palestinian revolt that burns into its third month risks unleashing forces that will impose a similar judgment by history on Israel's great conquest of Arab armies and Arab territories in 1967. The current Israeli leadership has shown itself unable or unwilling to carry out the logical consequences of that victory.

Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has said perceptively that the Palestinian uprising now makes untenable the 20-year policy of limbo -- of refusal either to annex the West Bank and Gaza and their troublesome populations or to make the territorial compromises necessary to get Arab rulers to take charge of them.

These sustained protests have provoked a brutal response from Israeli soldiers, who in many instances seem to have behaved more like Arab armies in suppressing the disturbances than the fabled Israeli Defense Forces of popular lore.

The uprisings have made it clear beyond dispute that Israel holds these lands by force, and force alone. Israel's leaders today have no answer to the Palestinian problem beyond deadly force and coercion. In this, too, they have become part of the established order of the Middle East. There is no need to search further afield in places like South Africa for analogies to what is happening.

Here amid the ruins of palaces past on this breezy Mediterranean prominence, at the end of a journey across North Africa, one image from the trip lingers. It is of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi sitting in an Algerian guest residence talking. Behind him a television screen flickers silently, its sound turned off.

Over Gadhafi's shoulder and unseen by him, the evening news runs images of unarmed Palestinians confronting Israeli soldiers and changing history while Gadhafi rattles on about his revolution against imperialism.

The Palestinian revolt in the biblical lands of Gaza, Judea and Samaria is the cutting edge of a broad and direct challenge to the established order of the entire region. They are rising not only against the Israelis who rule them but also indirectly against the Arab rulers who have failed them.

The ruling elites of the Arab world are already confronted by the growing force of Islamic fundamentalism, which is being fed by the bloody encounters in the occupied territories. In the underground mosques of Arab cities the Palestinian cause is again becoming a weapon to be used against seemingly inactive and uncaring governments. This helps explain why Arab leaders fear and dislike the Palestinians at least as much as the Israelis do.

And that is why these rulers have been so insistent that the Palestinians be given a land of their own where they can resettle under the watchful eyes of the Jordanian and Israeli armies. Wanting to hold on to the West Bank, Israeli leaders have pretended not to understand that for 30 years.

This double rejection of the Palestinians is at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is being sized down from a regional confrontation that triggered an American nuclear alert in 1973 to a murderous local conflict between Jews and Moslems today. In that sense, the American diplomatic initiatives started by Henry Kissinger to remove superpower competition from the Middle East reach a final mark of success.

But this process has unleashed a new dynamic, one that Egyptian writer Mohammed Sid Ahmed calls "bottom-to-top politics." Pressures for change will have to come from populations unwilling to go along with the growing desire of governments simply to maintain the status quo, he says.

The rioting Palestinian youths have been formed by the Israelis and rise up against them not as foreigners trying to change borders but as citizens of an unacknowledged polity demanding a future. That the Israeli response so closely resembles what any Arab state would do in the same situation recalls a prediction that a Lebanese friend made in Beirut more than decade ago.

"Eventually the Israelis will become Levantinized," she said then. "They will become more interested in selling the rug than weaving it. They will become like the Arabs in the other ways too, and the conflict will then find its real dimension as human tragedy."