In the bitter war between two conservative columnists, A. M. Rosenthal and Patrick Buchanan, I intended to be as neutral as Switzerland. Even though the issue is antisemitism, I had hoped not to choose, if only because I know Buchanan a bit and like him a lot. Besides, two conservatives fighting is, to me, like the Iran-Iraq war. May they both lose.

Now, though, Buchanan has drawn me in. In his newspaper column and on television he has invoked my name in his defense, pointing to a single area where we agree: that some of those most enthusiastic about a war with Iraq argue from an Israeli perspective. True enough, I think, but I also think it is not my awesome logic or Lippmannesque stature that commends me to Buchanan but rather my very name and what it suggests: here is a Jew who agrees with me.

Well, on some things I do, and on some things I don't. But when Rosenthal, in his "J'accuse" column in The New York Times, laid the two-by-four of antisemitism to Buchanan's temple, I thought he was on to something. I never would have written such a column, but I'm glad Rosenthal did.

Possibly I was swayed by knowing Buchanan. But in general, I hesitate to call anyone an antisemite. Not only is it an accusation of enormous, maybe ineradicable power, but on occasion the variant of "self-hating Jew" has been hurled at me. With me (as to a degree with Buchanan) the charge is an unthinking response to criticism of Israel. Maybe for that reason, I give someone like Buchanan the widest latitude in expressing his views before I conclude that something other than pure reason is at work.

But the doubts I once had about Buchanan have been laid to rest by his response to Rosenthal -- both in his column and on the air. In both mediums, the casual, sloppy and conspiratorial word "they" is scattered like shotgun pellets. "They" are out to silence Buchanan. "They're calling . . . editors" to have his newspaper column canceled. They have criticized and, at time, vilified, his church. They . . . Who are "they," Pat?

Well, it's not clear. One of the "theys" is certainly Abraham Foxman, national director of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League. In the Buchanan mythology, Foxman got Rosenthal to execute a "contract hit." But so what? I have used ADL information, and so has Buchanan. In the column biz, every day brings a different conspiracy.

Trouble is, Buchanan has the peripheral vision of a conspiratorialist. Way off on the margins, he sees "theys" few others can detect. For instance, in his defense of John Demjanjuk, accused in the United States (and convicted in Israel) of being a particularly brutal Nazi extermination camp guard, Buchanan went from what I initially thought was a gutsy position in defense of an accused Nazi to an incredible conspiracy theory: the KGB was framing an obscure Ukrainian American. What prompts such thoughts?

Now once again he sees a conspiracy. It includes Rosenthal, the ADL, Israel and whoever it is who made "caustic cutting cracks about my church and popes." But some of those "cracks" have been from me -- the very same person who on occasion has been critical of Israel. And they have been about historical, irrefutable truth, as well as more recent policies, like the initial refusal of the Catholic Church in Poland to vacate a building on the grounds of Auschwitz. These, Pat, were not cracks, but criticisms uttered from the heart.

My indelible image of Pat Buchanan is as a pugnacious witness during the Watergate hearings. As much as I disagreed with him, it was good to see someone in Washington who actually had some passion. But now it seems adrenalin has overwhelmed reason. Instead of listening to his critics, Buchanan lashes out at them, using the very language that got him into trouble in the first place. He cannot distinguish between Israel and Jews, between some Jews and all Jews, between apt criticism and anti-Catholic prejudice, and he sees Jews and only Jews as favoring a war with Iraq. The best you can say for him is that he has been insensitive. The worst you can say has been said by Rosenthal.

Rosenthal's rebuke to Buchanan comes at a good time. The anticommunism that held the conservative movement together is a parched and useless glue. Soon conservative will battle neoconservative for ideological dominance, and there's a chance that the antisemitism that once polluted the American right will resurface. My own hope is that if that happens, Pat Buchanan -- having learned from his critics -- will do to the antisemites what Rosenthal did to him. It would be a massacre.