FEAR of the next Middle East war, rather than hope for peace, is what is driving United States efforts to keep Israel and Syria at the negotiating table."The Middle East is marching toward a nuclear weapons era," warned Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens last month before a Knesset committee. "This is the reality we will have to live in and prepare [militarily] for." "The next war will not be conventional," bluntly declared Ezer Weizman, who held the defense portfolio under Menachem Begin. "The nuclear issue is gaining momentum." Indeed it is. And that is why the stakes of the current peace negotiations are so high. Their failure would lay the groundwork for a war in which Israel's sophisticated arsenal of nonconventional, including nuclear, weapons and Syria's chemical and biological stores will be at the ready. The potential for nonconventional warfare involving Israel and its Arab enemies was made inescapably clear to George Bush before and during the war against Iraq. In those anxious months, provoked by Saddam's promise to "incinerate" Israel, an unprecedented public airing was made in Israel of the high stakes of the game both Saddam Hussein and President Bush were playing. Israel made clear to both Washington and Baghdad that if Iraq breached the nonconventional threshold, Israel would respond in kind. The air force was ready "on every level," noted a senior Israeli air force officer three weeks before the war, including "nonconventional warfare capability." During the war, Israel's nuclear deterrence worked. Saddam, in the course of his greatest folly, respected the "barrier of fear" represented by Israel's nuclear forces, which according to various reports were armed and ready throughout the war. IN the aftermath of Iraq's defeat and its forced denuclearization, Israeli suspicions are growing that Washington, having just risked one nonconventional war, is intent upon removing Israel's nuclear option, which has been at the heart of its strategic doctrine for almost two decades. While most of the world looked at age-old antagonists sitting across the same table in Madrid and trumpeted the growing momentum toward peace, an eclectic group of prominent observers, including Abba Evan, Alexander Haig, and Ariel Sharon believe that the process begun at Madrid may well lead to war. Mr. Sharon has gone so far as to label Secretary of State James Baker's achievement a "war conference." Bush's efforts to rein in Israel's nuclear arsenal may well be at the heart of the current frostiness in relations between Jerusalem and Washington. In the debate currently being conducted in Israel, this US policy has already emboldened Israelis determined to crush the "existential threat" that Syria poses to the Jewish state, before US pressure is exerted - the Israeli version of "use 'em before you lose 'em." Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in a recent Knesset speech, warned Washington that "We will insist on maintaining reasonable security margins that will allow a secure life in the future." In the subtle discourse in which Israel's official nuclear debate is conducted, "reasonable security margins" translates into a vibrant nuclear option. The noises from Syria, a dictatorship with a muzzled press, are far more muffled. If the peace process fails, warns one Arab analyst, Syria and its Arab brethren "may find themselves in need of another October War that is a limited war aimed at forcing Washington to compel an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the June 1967 war. Nuclear and other nonconventional weapons are the key elements in the strategies of adversaries throughout the Middle East, and brinkmanship is a well-practiced art. Until now, when faced with the prospect of their use, one party or another has "blinked." The next war, however, may well be fought with eyes wide open.