WASHINGTON -- TO THE despair of many long-time friends, Israel seems caught in a time warp threatens to destroy her.
The Likud government's rejection of a U.N. team to investigate the tragedy at Al Aksa mosque is not an earth-shattering event in itself.
Still it was the last thing President Bush needed in his battle to keep the rest of the world from linking Saddam Hussein's rape of Kuwait to what's happening in Israel's occupied territories.
Not that the two are comparable. Saddam seized Kuwait in an act of naked aggression. Israel holds the West Bank and Gaza strip as a result of the Six-Day war, which even most Arabs concede was started by Nasser's Egypt.
A tiny country that fought three major wars in a generation just for the right to exist has every reason to view its neighbors with suspicion.
The world has changed mightily since the Yom Kippur war, however, and Israel's current leaders insist on living in the past.
They're afraid if they concede their peril has lessened, they'll have no excuse for refusing to discuss the future of the lands they occupy as prizes of war.
But just look around.
Israel no longer is threatened by Egypt.
Syria is preoccupied elsewhere and has lost her Soviet patron.
Jordan is on the point of collapse.
The U.S. has 250,000 troops poised at the doorstep of Israel's most potent enemy, Iraq.
The Arab unity myth is shattered.
The Soviet Union no longer is making mischief, either by arming renegade Arab regimes or through superpower clout, as when she deployed airborne divisions to support Syria in 1973 (perhaps our closest brush with nuclear war).
There are other reasons why this is a prudent time for Israel to reach for a settlement.
Until now, she has relied for security on her own superb army and all-out fiscal and weapons support from the United States. The rest of the world could go hang.
That has to end one of these days. The unbalanced load we're carrying in the Persian Gulf, especially in combat troops, is not a burden the American people will tolerate indefinitely.
Nor should we at a time when we're fighting to stay afloat in a dog-eat-dog new global economy.
Israel has good reason for distrusting the U.N., but some kind of international security force is going to be formed and, if not under the U.N., then with the same countries. Israel will have to find ways to get along in such a framework, without assuming a U.S. veto to bail her out.
The post-Cold War world, wherever it may be headed, is forming right now, before our eyes. The smart thing is to join the process.
For Israel, the price probably would have to be the much debated "land-for-peace" swap. There's no way an international agency would override the U.N. resolutions calling on Israel to give back the occupied territories.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud cohorts refuse even to consider such a heresy.
Israel won't join a club where that kind of deal is on the agenda, and nobody else will join one where it isn't.
As a result, Israel is isolated except for the faithful U.S., which roundly deplores her obstinancy.
As her friend, the greatest favor we could bestow would be to wield our billions in aid as a tough-love tool to push, if we can, her stubborn leaders toward an international conference on peace in the Middle East.
Jim Fain is a Washington columnist for Cox Newspapers.