IF Saddam Hussein is facing his moment of truth, President Bush is confronting in the Middle East the defining moment of his presidency. That the battle against tyranny is being won is now incontestable. The way things have been going on the battlefield should have sobered many doubters. What will come after the guns fall silent, however, is the real challenge. At the center of this challenge is the Palestine problem.
Now that the war has been going on for a month, the controversy over linkage or no linkage has become meaningless. The practical, cynical linkage has been nailed.
Not so the moral linkage. The cynicism with which an inherently just cause was, and is, still being manipulated does not make it less just or less urgent. Few causes have been as blatantly exploited to serve the narrow interests of some groups or rulers as the Palestinian issue.
Nevertheless, few disinterested people could now deny that among all the Middle East's problems this issue is the most important.
Furthermore, the Palestinian issue readily intertwines with and complicates all other problems in the region. How much more at ease we could all feel had we worked in a more sustained manner to resolve a problem that has been with us for some 43 years.
The nightmares that many experience when Saddam's largely ``political'' missiles, as President Mubarak described them, are fired at Israel should go a long way toward making people rethink their reluctance to give the Palestinian cause the priority it deserves.
Paradoxically, the Gulf war presents us with an unprecedented opportunity. The indivisibility of the security of the region has become apparent. Few states, within or outside the area, can claim they have no stake in the resolution of the Palestine problem.
Still more significant is the change in attitude of the Arab Gulf states, which in the past had reckoned they need not be involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict beyond extending financial assistance to Palestinians.
It is hardly a secret among Washington policymakers that some of these oil-rich states, which have borne most of the financial cost of the Arab-Israeli conflict, recently made it clear to visiting Americans that they would now accept full normalization of relations with Israel - provided it takes place within an overall solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the root of that conflict, they firmly believe, is the Palestinian problem.
Since Israel has recently insisted on establishing peaceful relations with its neighboring Arab states as a precondition for settling its dispute with the Palestinians, this new development in the attitude of the Gulf countries is of critical importance.
In this context, a properly structured international conference should be convened. And the appropriate time is soon after the Gulf war ends.
Only in such a venue can we resolve all the complex issues related to the solution of the Palestinian problem, the normalization of relations among all states of the region, and the formulation of security arrangements needed to rid the region of all weapons of mass destruction.
All these issues require the involvement of the big powers, not to impose their will but rather to mediate, facilitate, and provide the necessary guarantees, as well as the economic aid without which the mammoth task of reconstruction will be impossible.
The United States has never been in such a strong position as it is now to play the principal role in this process. Washington has been the linchpin of the gigantic international operation in the Gulf since the eruption of the present crisis. US leverage both with the Arab Gulf states and with Israel, now under the protective shield of its Patriot missiles while receiving increased financial assistance, has been vastly strengthened.
For the first time, the blood of American young men and women is being spilled in defense of those who have regarded each other as enemies.
In addition, few previous American presidents have had such a grasp of international affairs as Mr. Bush. Few other presidents have had such a worldwide vision, accompanied by a determination to see that vision realized.
It is true that the attitudes of the two main protagonists of the Middle East tragedy, Israel and the Palestinians, seem to have hardened as a result of the emotions caused by the present war. But to argue that we should wait until their attitudes soften would be a recipe for disaster - as was the old argument that the US could not do much so long as the two parties remained unwilling to compromise.
Such an argument is bound to be considered in the Arab world as simply a variation on an old and failed theme.
Mainstream Palestinians have shown that they can compromise when offered hope. It is inconceivable that they would not compromise again if they are allowed to see a light at the end of the tunnel. If Washington does not act now, most of the region may enter a dark tunnel with no end in sight.
It should not be difficult for the United States to persuade Israel that its security is best found within guaranteed borders shared with neighbors who will join it in gradually moving, through normalized relations, toward a new order in the region and the world.
The present outburst of frustrations and confused emotions in some Arab and Muslim countries, though mostly fueled by Saddam's propaganda, is in more than one sense a cry for long overdue justice.
The situation is likely to take a downward turn if a firm commitment for action is not forthcoming from the highest level in Washington before the impending bloody ground war begins.
We will certainly face an unpredictable situation if a political vacuum follows the war, with its visible destruction, its destabilization of a country as central to the region's balance of power as Iraq, and its humiliation of the proud Iraqi people.
Furthermore, moderate regimes in the region will feel let down if, after their courageous and principled stand against Saddam, they're given no assurance of action on the Palestine problem - a problem now recharged with explosive emotions.
What is needed is a solemn declaration from President Bush to ensure for the Palestinians the same rights that President Woodrow Wilson promised for colonized peoples during World War I when he acknowledged the right of every people to chose their own allegiance and be free of masters.
It is to be hoped that President Bush will act while the iron is hot to preempt die-hard elements among the Israelis and the Palestinians before they preempt him - and before other parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict relapse into their old, dangerous posturing.