The great irony of the Gulf crisis could turn out to be that, in terms of his professed purpose of pushing Palestine to the top of the international agenda, Saddam Hussein could end up winning even though his country and regime may be ruined in a war.

This flows from the fact that, however suspect his motives and tactics, Saddam Hussein's crisis has shown like nothing else before that the Palestine question, far from being a difficult and tangled matter that can reasonably be left to two small squabbling parties who inhabit a slice of the Mediterranean coast, is central to the political health and strategic balance of the whole Middle East and beyond.

The crisis has been one long unforeseen but forceful course of instruction in the larger geopolitical aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The human distress that this conflict has inflicted on its two parties has long been known to the rest of the world -- without provoking adequately serious efforts to deal with it. This time the rest of us have had occasion to learn how the conflict eats at the fundamental stability of the region as a whole. This education comes about not through the trickery and propaganda of Saddam but through the stark regional facts lying before everyone's eyes

How telling that Israel's foreign minister, David Levy, now courageously acknowledges that a "psychological linkage" has been created between Iraq's conquest of Kuwait and Israel's hold on the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, with the United States, fiercely opposes a political linkage involving, for instance, a call for an international Mideast peace conference. But he appears to realize that a linkage has been made in people's minds, that being there it is more likely to survive the current crisis, and that it will likely be played out later on the political stage no matter how the crisis is resolved.

How unfortunate that Saddam has not had the wit to see what he has already accomplished. Might the United Nations secretary general convey the message? Conceivably it would help Saddam claim that implicitly his grand mission has been achieved. Nor could the United States complain that an unwarranted fig leaf had been supplied to Baghdad. The American intent has simply been to deny Saddam's claim to make an immediate explicit political linkage between Kuwait and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

While the Iraq crisis races on, there can be no thought of making Israel, a third party with no responsibility at all for that crisis, pay to end it in either current or future coin. Rather, Israelis deserve close American cooperation and support in their very real peril. This includes an unbegrudged right of response to Iraqi attack. Iraq brazenly threatens to strike Israel's citizens with chemicals and missiles. Israel's reported readiness to "take a hit" -- to stay out of war unless attacked -- is an important contribution to American strategy.

To be faithful to a friend and ally in circumstances of military danger, however, does not require permanently signing on to an Israeli policy that cut across some American interests before the invasion of Kuwait, that is demonstrably burdening American policy during the crisis and will remain a burden afterward. I refer to the pre-crisis policy of Israel's Likud government in backing away from the concept of negotiating the exchange of territory for peace and in torpedoing the Bush administration's efforts to start Israeli-Palestinian talks on the basis of Prime Minister Shamir's peace plan.

Nor can every idea for future consideration -- an international conference, for instance -- be dismissed out of hand as appeasement, betrayal, reward of aggression and so forth. Such glib labels prevent proposals of potential benefit to Israel from being judged on their merits.

When things get back on track, Palestinians will have to reestablish their credentials with Israeli moderates. Arab states will have to move to a stage of direct peacemaking with Israel. Israelis must return to territory-for-peace and negotiation. The United States must resume the vigorous role the Bush administration earlier was playing. Everyone must find new formats and formulas for arms control. I know it sounds crazy to imagine that Saddam could have had any part in such a development. But, hey, it's the Middle East.