Doves have a hard life. Especially in Israel. It really is unfair. But as Jack Kennedy wisely said: "Life is unfair."

Just when the Palestinian "intifada" was slowly beginning to convince Israelis all across the political spectrum that Palestinian nationalism is authentic and that hanging on to the occupied territories isn't worth the cost; just when genuine, attractive, home-grown Palestinian spokesmen like Faisal Hussami, son of the only Palestinian hero of the 1948 war, were constructing a fragile political alliance with Israeli peace groups; just when sub-rosa congressional mutterings about Israeli "intransigence" seemed likely to become much more audible after the November elections; just when some leaders of American Jewish organizations were openly espousing the "dovish" critique of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his new right-wing government coalition; and just when President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker seemed poised to press some tough, probably unanswerable questions about Shamir's peacemaking intentions on Foreign Minister David Levy during his Washington debut -- just then did Saddam Hussein shatter the doves' hopes overnight. Then Yasser Arafat's PLO stomped on the shards by quickly coming to the defense of Baghdad. And soon after came the sound of the nearly unanimous cheering for Saddam that welled up from Palestinians in the territories, in Jerusalem, in Jordan and -- most chilling for Israelis -- in Nazareth and Haifa and Jaffa.

It was all too much for many of the most idealistic Israeli doves to swallow. This was, after all, Saddam Hussein who was being cheered, the "Butcher of Baghdad," who only three months earlier had threatened to "burn half of Israel" with poison gas and whose credibility for that kind of threat is impeccable.

Meanwhile, the doves' forlorn but perennial hope that American "pressure" would finally tip the political balance for them against Shamir and the Likud was again dashed. While the United States neither needed nor wanted any overt help from Israel as Bush went about deftly assembling his diplomatic and military coalition, certain practical fruits of U.S.-Israel "strategic cooperation" acquired enhanced contingency value. And Saddam's threat to Israel, whether immediate or long-term, is no longer so easily disparaged by Washington officials. Gratitude is uncommon in international politics, but it was widely expressed last week as some wryly recalled the international condemnation of Israel's preemptive strike on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. Clearly, Israeli doves cannot now expect Bush or Baker to confront Shamir or Levy with hard choices about yielding territorial depth to Palestinians (or Jordanians!), at least not any time soon.

During Levy's visit to Washington this week, we can of course anticipate some brave words about the continued importance of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israeli doves should not, however, take much encouragement. The U.S. priority will now go to establishing a long-term personal working relationship with this least-known Israeli leader, the only non-English-speaking Israeli foreign minister in history. What U.S. officials do know about Levy is that he is not so much an ideologue as a self-made, underrated, clever, occasionally demagogic "ward politician" with a prickly ego who has both the determination and a reasonable chance to become prime minister after Shamir. They also know that he has occasionally dissented at crucial moments from hard-line Likud orthodoxy. They undoubtedly hope he may do so again -- not now, surely, but somewhere down the tortuous road that leads through the diplomatic swamp called "peace process" toward that most elusive of goals, Arab-Israeli peace.

So once again the doves will mourn a lost opportunity to force Shamir and Levy to confront hard choices about the occupied territories. And once again an American president will conclude that Israel is an important ally at a time of crisis in the Middle East, a prickly but valuable ally to consult, rather than an intransigent teenage child to punish.

It's too bad the same lesson has to be learned over and over by successive presidents.

The writer was U.S. ambassador to Israel for eight years under presidents Carter and Reagan.