JOHN CONNALLY'S speech on the Mideast is a telling measure of how American debate on this central issue is developing. No previous candidate for a major party's presidential nomination had staked out a position so opposed to the traditional line. Mr. Connally offers no deference to the "Jewish lobby," attacking the current Israeli government's policies head-on. He dares to couple the Arab-Israeli dispute to oil, declaring that the one must be solved for the sake of the other. he goes far beyond the customary warm and vague assurances that the United States has long offered Israel and its other friends in the region and states that "a strong military presence" must be established.

In brief, Mr. Connally's first major foreign-policy statement is an interesting one, not confined to conservative sloganeering. It essentially expands on the contribution that Jimmy Carter has made to American debate and policy on the Middle East. Basically, Mr. Connally has taken the Carter policies -- recognition and security for Israel, territory and a Palestinian soltution for the Arabs -- and tried to move them past the point where the administration seems to be stuck now. That points is, of course, the Palestinians' refusal even to nibble on the Camp David plan for Palestinian self-rule.

The question is whether Mr. Connally could do any better with his new plan. With the slickness a sitting president cannot possibly emulate, he would terminate Camp David and start a "new process" covering not only the Arab-Israeli dispute, but oil as well. His linkage is bold but not entirely persuasive. The trouble is not simply that he invites blackmail by making this linkage explicit, for a certain linkage exists whether it is made explicit or not. The trouble is that it is a fantasy to think that peace alone -- without the most strenuous American exertions in conservation and new production -- will bring "a return to stable oil prices in real terms." An Arab promise of price stability in return for peace would be a fraud.

We suspect nonetheless that the Connally positions upholding Israeli security in pretty much the old borders, opening the door to pallestinian moderates while excluding extremists, offering regional military guarantees for reasons of peace and oil alike -- represent one possible future wave of American opionion and policy.