If there is to be a chance for a regional peace initiative after the gulf war, Washington must make a determined effort to resolve the Palestinian problem.

Diplomacy will falter anew if Washington, to avoid controversy with Jerusalem, tries to sidestep this central issue and moves instead toward direct talks between Israel and Syria. These would only divert the peace process.In any negotiations the Palestinians must be present if their claim to a homeland is at stake. Thus, the principal question is still the same: Who will speak for the Palestinians?

The answer, as before, is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Reports of the death and burial of the PLO are premature. The PLO's chairman, Yasser Arafat, may be ready for elder statesman status, but the group shows every indication of surviving this crisis, as it has so many in the past.

Although widely reviled in the West after its embrace of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the PLO has rebuilt support among Arab leaders by a nuanced distancing from Iraq's determination to fight rather than withdraw from Kuwait.

Top PLO leaders have been received officially in many Arab capitals where they were persona non grata a few months ago.

The assassination in Tunis on Jan. 14 of Arafat's heir-apparent, Abu Iyad, and his chief of security, as well as the ambush killing 10 days later in Kuwait of Abu Ziad, another top PLO official - all believed to be the work of Iraqi agents trying to silence their open and relentless criticism of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - also has earned sympathy for the PLO.

The PLO has never lost the allegiance of the Arab man in the street, whose support for Saddam as a putative liberator has resonated across the Muslim world.

While the West felt revulsion toward the Palestinians for their glee at Scud missile strikes in Israel, most Arab capitals have reported a widespread sense of satisfaction that Israel has been attacked and a sharpening demand that the Palestinian plight be addressed.

If the war terminates with the collapse of Saddam's regime, the Palestinians will seek another leader to protect their interests. Syria's president, Hafez Assad, will be first in line to claim that role, but his patronage will not be helpful in the postwar period.

Syria cannot deliver the Palestinians to a negotiating table unless Assad succeeds in crushing the mainstream tendencies of the PLO and putting in its place the extremists who owe him allegiance.

Once the war ends, the United States should quickly renew its links with the PLO and strive to keep the PLO out of Syria's orbit. Cairo might be induced by Washington to again mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Saudis, angry with Arafat, are seeking new faces even as, according to numerous but unofficial reports, they are quietly resuming financial support of the PLO.

Thus, the major partners in the anti-Iraq coalition should signal strong interest in the younger leaders of the PLO, such as Yasir Rebbo, who led the talks with the United States, and those Palestinians who command true allegiance in the West Bank.

Israel's refusal to acknowledge the PLO as the legitimate representative of virtually all Palestinians will foreclose any meaningful dialogue.

The Palestinians alone will select their representative and the PLO remains their choice. The war will not alter that reality.

(Rita E. Hauser, an international lawyer, is U.S. head of the International Center for Peace in the Middle East.)