"Linkage" -- the willingness to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the context of the crisis in the Persian Gulf -- has become a major impediment to a possible solution of the conflict.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein insists upon linking the two situations, though he knows -- and knows that the world knows -- his brutal annexation of Kuwait had nothing to do with the plight of the Palestinians. President Bush insists that there will be no such linkage, even as a transparent ploy calculated to give the Iraqi a reasonably graceful exit from the crisis he has created.

The two presidents, like two nose-to-nose combatants in a barroom dispute, would rather risk the mutual devastation of actual combat than admit -- even for the sake of face-saving -- that the other guy has a point.

Perhaps the most sensible words on the linkage impasse came Friday from former President Carter, who said what so many Americans have been reluctant to say: that linkage already exists, and that "reasonable concessions" from both sides are a small price to pay in order to avoid war.

"There is no reason why the international community should not accept the concept of a peace conference to deal with broader regional issues, including the attempt for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian question," said Carter, who engineered the 1978 Camp David treaty between Israel and Egypt. He called for an international Middle East conference, under joint U.S. and Soviet sponsorship, to tackle the full range of issues in the region.

"If necessary to save face," he added, "we can continue to deny what everyone knows: that linkage does exist."

In fact, whether linkage does exist is largely a semantic point. The attractiveness of the Carter proposal is that it makes possible a useful outcome from the impasse. War with Iraq -- even if it resulted in a humiliating defeat for Saddam, would leave us worse off on almost every score. It would destroy Kuwait, whose rescue is our ostensible reason for fighting. It would trigger an economy-wrecking increase in the price of oil, while threatening its availability at any price. It would destroy the relations between the United States and the Arab world. As Carter put it, "In the aftermath of war, no matter what the outcome might be, an allied invasion will be viewed simplistically as a devastating attack by United States forces against the people of Iraq and Kuwait," arousing "religious sensibilities among Moslem believers in all countries."

Further, given the likely domestic reaction to a bloody war that cost thousands of American lives, it would make it less likely that we would find the will to oppose the regional ambitions of the next Saddam.

But using the present crisis as Carter suggests would deprive Saddam or a similarly ambitious successor of the glue that holds the Arab coalition together: their common hatred of Israel, of which the Palestinian question is a major element.

The former president, whose remarks were contained in a written statement issued by the Carter Center in Atlanta, agreed that Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait in line with the requirements of United Nations resolutions. But there is no reason why other regional disputes could not be negotiated at the same time, he said.

The interesting thing is that partisans on both sides of the linkage question agree that we should take advantage of the crisis Saddam has created to accomplish what needs to be accomplished in any case. For one side, this means using the crisis as an excuse to eliminate Saddam (or at least to destroy his offensive military capacity). For the other, it means using the crisis as an opportunity for long-term regional peace.

The choice might be obvious but for one factor: If the international conference that both Carter and Saddam have proposed resulted in regional peace, Saddam might be able to pose as the hero who made it all possible. And since Bush insists on portraying the Iraqi as the embodiment of the world's evil, he'd rather have regional chaos with Saddam gone than peace that might save his reputation.

For me, it comes down to this simple question: How can it make more sense to let your house burn to the ground than to allow the arsonist who torched it to share credit for putting out the fire?