AS Arabs and Israelis sat at a peace table for the first time yesterday, in the ornate Salon of Columns in Madrid's royal palace, there was a conspicuous absence at the feast.Among all the issues up for discussion on the complex peace agenda, one has been carefully avoided throughout the preparations for the talks, and is notable for its omission in everybody's public rhetoric: the widespread abuses of human rights throughout the Middle East. The way diplomats and government leaders have glossed over the arbitrary detentions, torture, and the lack of democracy that characterize the region is a fundamental flaw in the fledgling peace process, according to the respected human rights group Middle East Watch. "It is essential that [the negotiators] address the deplorable state of human rights in the Middle East" so as to underscore "the vital link between those rights and regional security" that other conflicts around the third world have illustrated, the organization said in a report issued on the eve of the conference. "People tread on eggs as far as the Middle East is concerned," says Andrew Whitley, executive director of Middle East Watch. "Why should the region be treated as some sort of oddity?" he asks. The report, timed to coincide with the peace talks, chronicles the miserable litany of human rights violations that it says all parties to the conference - Israel, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians - indulge in. It points out that the link between human rights and security was affirmed both in the Helsinki Accords of 1975 and the Central American pact of 1987, and that human rights are firmly on the agenda at Yugoslav peace talks in The Hague. In the Middle East peace process, however, the issue has been ignored because "regrettably, human rights have not been at the center of US policy here for a very, very long time, nor at the center of the Arab-Israeli sphere," laments Palestinian delegation adviser Rashid Khalidi. "Perhaps it is too embarrassing." Mr. Whitley agrees that "the Americans have shown very little real interest in human rights in the Middle East," and also complains that amid the satisfaction that the peace conference has finally been launched, "when you raise the issue of human rights, people say 'don't spoil the party He acknowledges that the delegations may have other priorities at this phase of negotiations, but he is keen "to start the ball rolling. Let's at least put human rights on the conference agenda in a broad sense at an early stage." In Madrid to lobby conference participants, the Middle East Watch director would like to see at least four principles enshrined in any peace treaties that emerge from the talks: lifting all the states of emergency, a commitment to political pluralism in the Middle East, the release of political prisoners, and pledges to guarantee freedom of expression. Whitley says he is "modestly optimistic" about his chances for success. The Palestinian delegation leader, Haider Abdel-Shafi, is expected to raise the human rights question in his opening speech to the conference today, and an Israeli spokesman said his delegation was concerned, for example, by the fate of Jews in Syria, although he did not expect this to be a topic for early negotiation. "Individual parties at the conference have their own agendas on human rights," says Whitley. "We are trying to convince them that it is in everybody's interests to push the overall agenda."