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For President Bush as for predecessors Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon - the Arab-Israeli conflict has turned into the diplomatic equivalent of a Rubik's Cube.

Part of the problem may lie in the very nature of diplomacy, which can be defined as the not-so-fine art of splitting differences.The Arab world's clearly stated objective has always been the destruction of Israel. Israel's objective has always been to survive.

Enter the diplomats who attempt to split the difference, to seek a "reasonable middle gound."

To understand what that really means, let's suppose that my goal is to kill you and your goal is to live. Seeking a Solomonic compromise, the diplomats might propose we amputate your legs and give them to me. Afterward, I'm to promise I won't try to kill you again.

This diplomatic formula is currently packaged under the label "land for peace" and, indeed, it sort of worked when Israel relinquished the Sinai - a swath of territory larger than all the rest of Israel - in exchange for a piece of paper promising that Egypt would attack Israel no more.

What's wrong with pursuing that approach with the remaining Arab states? Most Israelis are willing to do so - if they can be assured that giving up more of the land they acquired fighting defensive wars actually would bring an end to the conflict.

But many Israelis also fear that after the next chunk of real estate is turned over, the promise of peace will vanish like a mirage and in its place will come more demands for more land.

Lasting peace would arrive only when every square inch of Israel had been given up - or when a shrunken Israel had become too weak to defend itself from the next Arab attack.

Instead of insisting on "land for peace" why not start by talking about "peace for peace"? Why not begin with the idea that decades of killing have been unhealthy for Arabs and Israelis alike?

Then, having reached agreement on that issue, the two sides could sit down to discuss where and how to draw borders that both sides can live with.

If Israel proved to be unreasonable in this tough second phase of the negotiations, the Arabs could always storm out and declare a return to the state of war that has existed every day of every year since 1948 when Arab armies made their first attempt to strangle the fledgling Jewish state.

What would the Arabs lose by trying that approach? Only the dream of annihilating Israel - should the talks prove successful.

By the same token, the longer the Arabs wait to make peace, the deeper the roots Israel will put down in places like the West Bank and the harder it will be for any Israeli government to give up those territories in exchange for promises.

As an honest broker, President Bush should be making these points forcefully to the Arabs. Instead, he's made a big show of denying Israel the loan guarantees needed to help resettle Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants, destitute refugees who have nowhere else on earth to go.