JERUSALEM - Like it or not, the United States must now get ready to bite the bullet of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President George Bush and the other members of the coalition against Iraq insist, correctly, that Saddam Hussein's aggression is the clear and present danger, not to be blurred by linking it with the other. But the two are unmistakeably connected. The United States and its partners want not just to be rid of Saddam Hussein but also to see a new security system pacify the region. Peace in the Arabian peninsula is indivisible. The area cannot manage the strategic upheaval now in progress nor the profound transformations which the Gulf regimes must undertake for their survival as long as they maintain a state of war with Israel.
Carefully planned, imaginative initiatives must follow upon the end of the Iraq emergency. In a grim sort of way, the time is more favorable than it has ever been. The Soviet Union is no longer excluded as the troublemaker it was for so long, but seen as a partner in stability. Washington, while supporting Israel as a secure and prosperous nation, has developed its relations with the major Arab states and is accepted as an honest broker. Relieved of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, the American role will be sharply reduced. But until the Gulf states have devised a common defense with an eye to Iran as well as Iraq, they will want the reassurance of US support.
Washington cannot wait for either Israel or the Palestinians to break their vicious circle. Israel's policy in the territories it has occupied since 1967 is bankrupt. Except for the lunatic fringe, Israelis admit there can be no military solution. Yet, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir holds doggedly to its aim of a Greater Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. The Palestinians, together with the rest of the world, oppose this plan but their divided leadership presents no compelling alternative.
After three years, the uprising against Israeli occupation - the intifadah - has become an almost routine way of life for both sides, a brutally unhappy marriage. Left to themselves, they will destroy each other. Dispassionate friends must arrange a separation, always mindful that a solution cannot be imposed. It must be something both sides accept if only because rejection would be worse. What would that be? The parties must negotiate the terms. How? One possibility is to reopen the umbrella of the 1973 conference, with the US and the USSR as co-chairmen, which facilitated disengagement on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts that led in the end to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The number involved in the reconvened conference would remain small: France and Britain, together with Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbors Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Having to live with the consequences might help to clarify their minds.
THE peace process will be neither quick nor painless. The indispensable element is security. Thus far, Israel has sought security too much in military strength. This is understandable, given the climate of Arab hostility in which it has lived, but is nevertheless a dead end. Peace with Egypt demonstrates that enmity is not unalterable. Real security lies in neighbors respecting each others' rights.
Washington must tell Israel frankly that its annexation of Syria's Golan Heights and its creeping annexation of the West Bank and Gaza are obstacles to understanding. Nor does the treatment of the Palestinians as a subject people in the colonial manner fit into a pattern of peace. While not suggesting, to the encouragement of Arab extremists, that it is abandoning Israel, President Bush is entitled to tell Prime Minister Shamir that the US will not subsidize a policy it deems disastrous.
What makes the prospect of conciliation realistic and not utopian is its immense, practical benefit for all parties. Europe of the 1990s points the way: less suspicion, reduced armaments, open borders and freer commerce enhancing cooperation, prosperity and security for the sovereign states. The Middle East is not Europe but it is also composed of human beings who would welcome freedom from fear.