Among the various reasons given by the administration for reacting so strongly against Israel's quasi-annexation of the Golan Heights is that it put in jeopardy "the Middle East peace process." I have heard this and read this dozens of times by now, and each time I find myself increasingly bewildered.

There is, of course, a "Camp David peace process" in which Egypt and Israel are participating. So far as one can tell, this process is moving along pretty much on schedule, Golan Heights or no Golan Heights. And why should it not? Does anyone actually believe that Egypt cares whether Syria--which applauded the assassination of Anwar Sadat--re-acquires the Golan Heights? Indeed, Egypt is doubtless astonished to discover that there are officials in our State Department and Pentagon who seriously thought it possible that Israel would ever return that strategic sliver of barren territory to Syria.

There is also, of course, a lot of diplomatic conversation taking place between our government and the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria about the possible outlines of a comprehensive settlement as between Israel and its neighbors. But only our State Department could so supremely delude itself as to think that this idle chatter represents any kind of real "peace process."

The sad truth is that neither Saudi Arabia nor Syria, the two key Arab states, has ever indicated any interest in terms of settlement even minimally acceptable to Israel. The Saudis keep stressing the importance of Jerusalem, which no Israeli government could think of giving up. Syria publicly defines Israel as a "crusader state," an alien offshoot of Western Christendom that Arab Moslems must destroy, root and branch. An armed truce between these two nations and Israel is, under existing circumstances, the best we can hope for.

But isn't it possible for a Sadat to emerge as leader of one of these nations and radically change these circumstances? No, it isn't; that moment has passed. The most powerful force in the Middle East today is Islamic fundamentalism. It has removed Sadat; it may yet destroy his legacy. No Arab leader today can confront and defy this force. And this Islamic fundamentalism is not interested in peaceful coexistence with a Jewish state, or with Christian minorities or even with any less militant variant of Islam.

The State Department and Pentagon do not understand this because they are populated with the kind of people who find it difficult to take religious passions seriously. These are the people who worry about "anti-Americanism" in the Arab world. But there is no "anti-Americanism" in the Arab world. What there is is a bitter hostility to Islam's hereditary enemy, Western Christendom, of which America is the most visible and powerful representative, and of which Israel is perceived (quite correctly, if ironically) to be an integral part.

So the "Middle East peace process" is a figment of the American bureaucratic imagination. And while we are enchanted by this witless fantasy, we are blind to the very real "war process," of major significance, that is now taking place in the Middle East.

I refer to the war between Iraq and Iran that has vanished from our headlines but that goes on. By now it is clear that Iraq has lost that war, despite generous support from the Saudis and Jordan. For Iraq cannot endure a long struggle, with mounting casualties. Its government lacks any shred of popular support and maintains itself by sheer thuggery. Iran, in contrast, is a much larger nation whose revolutionary Shi'ite regime has the fanatical support of at least a large minority of its populace. One of these days, the Iraqi army will silently fold its tents and melt away, and the Iraqi regime will collapse.

Then we shall see in the Middle East an aggressive Iran-Iraqi bloc, amply supported by the Soviet Union, riding the crest of Islamic fundamentalism, threatening to engulf both Israel and its Arab neighbors. Moreover, those Arab states that have been, from our point of view, most "reasonable" in their attitude toward Israel will be the most vulnerable. What is the point, then, of seeking a "comprehensive peace settlement," with Israel making strategic concessions in return for empty gestures?

Only a significant American military presence in the region could prevent this eventuality, so threatening, not only to Israel, but to the West's oil supplies. Instead, we are relying on an illusory "peace process" to substitute for the materiality of such a presence. It is American military bases --not flimsy "staging areas" but permanent and powerful establishments--in the Middle East that are the precondition for stability.

The "peace process" between Israel and its neighbors is imaginary. It is the "war process" between fundamentalist Islam and any Western presence or influence in the Middle East that is the looming reality.