As the Middle East clock moves closer to the moment of truth when a war or peace decision can no longer be deferred, time is running out to repair a potentially fatal chink in the skillfully crafted armor binding the international coalition committed to end Irau's aggression against Kuwait.

By insisting there can be no linking a solution of the Gulf crisis to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Bush administration has in effect given Saddam Hussein a free ride. Denying that such linkage exists does not make it any less real in the minds of large segments of Arab public opinion, including those in countries such as Egypt that have from the beginning been staunch members of the coalition arrayed against Iraq.

By failing to preempt this issue at the outset, we have enabled Saddam Hussein to exploit it with utter cynicism to his political advantage. Transparent as this ploy may appear in Western eyes, it would be a mistake to underestimate its potential to create a backlash in Arab opinion against the United States, and against Arab regimes identified with us, should the Gulf crisis erupt into full-scale hostilities. If those hostilities were brief, if the United States were perceived as decisive and successful, if the coalition held firm and if the scenes on Arab television of American military might bashing an Arab country could be minimized, the backlash might be manageable. These are, as the saying goes, very big ifs.

Should the war not go as quickly and surgically as planned, there is a great risk that deep-rooted Arab historical memories and resentment of Western domination, symbolized today by the United States, could fan the backlash into a firestorm that would turn the inevitable U.S. military success into a pyrrhic victory. This risk would be multiplied exponentially if Saddam Hussein succeeded in drawing Israel into the war. His threats to launch an attack on Israel, however suicidal, should be taken with deadly seriousness.

To seek to reduce the likelihood of such a scenario, it is first of all necessary to recognize that, however flawed from the point of view of international legality the parallel may be between U.N. resolutions on the Gulf crisis and on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the argument that the world, and the United States in particular, have applied a double standard in dealing with these problems has a powerful appeal to Arab public opinion. The Arab world has come a long way in the past decade toward reconciling itself to the need to make peace with Israel. The emotions that would be aroused by a war in the Middle East, in which Arab governments are perceived to be allied with the "imperialist" supporters of Israel against another Arab country, could seriously set back the progress made in recent years toward resolution of the Arab-Israeli, including the Palestinian-Israeli, conflict.

It is probably not realistic at this stage to expect the United States to take the initiative to modify its position on the linkage issue. The administration has, however, left open the possibility that others, through the United Nations, may be able to point the way to peaceful alternatives to a military solution of the present crisis. There is still an opportunity both to deny to Saddam Hussein the advantage of being the sole champion of the Palestinian cause and to give him a way out of the dead end he has put himself in. This does not mean conditioning Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait on movement toward a solution of the Palestinian issue. Linkage in that sense would be unacceptable as a matter of principle and unrealistic politically. There is a sense, however, in which the existence of linkage as a political reality could be acknowledged, and the administration could be extricated from the corner into which it has painted itself on this issue.

The United States has been careful to keep its approach to the Gulf crisis within a U.N. context. It should now be prepared to acquiesce in an initiative by others within that context, such as that discussed by the Europeans with U.N. Secretary General Perez$de Cuellar, formally to commit the world community to an international conference, to be convened once Iraq had withdrawn from Kuwait, whose purpose would be to deal with other unfinished business in the Middle East. In addition to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the agenda could include measures to reduce other threats to regional stability arising, for example, from the presence of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Some will argue that this would be rewarding Saddam Hussein, and he no doubt would seek credit for forcing the world to focus on the Palestinian issue. It can also be argued, however, that the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be left to ferment no matter how the current crisis ends, so why not accept this reality now and make a virtue of necessity?

While working out the details of such a conference would be long and complicated, what is needed now is a solemn commitment, enshrined in a resolution of the U.N. Security Council, to make the effort. At best, that effort might help avoid the war that may otherwise be necessary to compel Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. At a minimum, it could help cushion the present international coalition against the shocks of war if it came and lay the groundwork for a more stable post-crisis Middle East.

The writer has served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt and assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia.