Although the Gulf war has only just begun, Middle Eastern specialists in America -- both in and out of government -- are already turning their attention to the shape of the region after the conflict is over.

Conventional wisdom has long held that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the central problem of the Middle East. But it seems especially clear now that the central problem is the area's longstanding and deeply rooted habit of violent politics.

The latest manifestations of this habit are Iraq's brutal invasion and occupation of Kuwait and its attacks against Saudi Arabia -- both of whom had provided billions of dollars to Iraq during its long war against Iran.

In this fundamental sense, although most Arabs and analysts hate to admit it, the current Arab-Arab problem closely resembles the Arab-Israeli problem.

Although Saddam Hussein speaks frequently and vehemently of a united Arab nation (which he longs to lead), of Allah, of holy crusades and holy war, neither Arab brotherhood nor shared religion prevented him from making war against fellow Moslems in Iran or invading Kuwait or threatening Saudi Arabia. Habits of violence proved stronger than ties of brotherhood.

It is the same violent politics that ruined Lebanon, destroyed Hamas in Syria, prevented the development of normal relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and eliminated any possibility for normal life on the West Bank.

No people have suffered more from this habitual violence and caused more suffering by it than the Palestinians, whose self-appointed leaders in the PLO have conducted a long war against each other as well as against Israel. The most recent victim of this war within a war was Yasser Arafat's deputy, Salah Khalaf (also known as Abu Iyad), murdered recently in Tunis.

Since his death, Abu Iyad has been accused of all manner of political deviations, including "moderation" and meeting with the Israelis in the pursuit of peace. This hardly seems fair to a dead man who spent his last days traveling about the region extolling the blood of martyrs and vowing war to the death against Zionists and Americans.

But it is true that Abu Iyad criticized Yasser Arafat for allying the PLO with Saddam Hussein. It is true, too, that he advocated union with Jordan and called King Hussein, not Saddam Hussein, the ultimate sovereign of the Palestinian people. It is also undoubtedly true that he was cut down by an associate of Abu Nidal, probably on the orders of Arafat's ally, Saddam Hussein.

This pattern of violence manifest throughout the region is underpinned by a political culture that emphasizes radical nationalism, "the liberation" of Palestine and the destruction of Israel.

It is extremely important that the U.S. government understand and remember the reality of this politics and violence and its consequences for friendly Arab regimes. Among its victims are: Presidents Anwar Sadat and Bashir Gemayel, murdered; Lebanese democracy, destroyed; Kuwait, trashed; and Jordan's government, reduced to impotence. The Gulf war is the most recent consequence. But another consequence is the denial of a normal life to both Israelis and Palestinians.

The U.S. government should bear these human and economic costs in mind as it considers what comes after the war.

All decisions should be designed to weaken the forces of violence and strengthen the politics and leaders of nonviolence. But incredibly there are already American citizens on American airwaves describing the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and demanding -- in the name of peace -- that Israel install this party of permanent war as the government of a new Palestinian state.

Already some former American ambassadors are worrying aloud about how important it is to preserve Iraq and/or Iraqi military forces and/or the Iraqi government intact. Especially they warn against humiliating Iraq, as though a government that trashes its neighbor should not suffer humiliating defeat.

The most optimistic factor for the postwar world is precisely that PLO and Iraqi leaders have been thoroughly discredited by their role in this costly conflict. This fact should weaken the hold of violent politics on the region, since obviously it will not be possible to develop nonviolent politics under violent leaders.

New leaders for the Palestinians could mean a new beginning for a real Arab-Israeli peace process. And at the conclusion of this war, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will presumably have a new appreciation of the importance of peace and of nonviolence. They, too, might just be ready for peace with Israel.

But peace can come only with the renunciation of violent politics and an end to excuses and indulgences for its practitioners.