THE TEMPLE Mount incident in Jerusalem has now produced two United Nations resolutions criticizing Israel, the first for the violence and the second for barring a U.N. investigation. It has been a costly episode for Israel, which in its prickliness at being challenged yielded up an opportunity to defend itself and win sympathy for its version of a multifaceted tragic event. It may not be the last such episode either: as long as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute goes untreated, incidents will recur. The best that can be said of this one is that although it is a souring episode, it is providing only a passing superficial diversion from the general concentration on Iraq's aggression.

It is always interesting to ponder what it takes to engage the United Nations. Israel was held to account for the killing by panicked police of 20 or so members of a huge Palestinian mob that was stirred by false reports that their holy place was about to be desecrated and that responded by heaving rocks at Israeli citizens at prayer. Meanwhile, Syrian troops are reported to have killed dozens of disarmed soldiers who had surrendered in the course of Syria's successful move against insurgent Lebanese general Michel Aoun. France, traditional patron of Lebanon's Christians, protested and asked the U.N. secretary general to investigate. The United States neither protested the specific report (though it has expressed a general disapproval of killings in Lebanon) nor seconded the French petition. Lebanon's government, which rests on Syrian power, then asserted its sovereign rights (Israel, in the eyes of most of the world, does not enjoy sovereign rights in Jerusalem) and blocked a U.N. probe. Nobody so much as peeped.

How is it that the American government could be exercised in the one instance and not in the other? Some part of the explanation appears to lie in a concern to preserve the coalition disposed against Iraq. Thus Washington could join criticism of the Arabs' pet anathema, Israel, and spare the feelings of a welcome Arab recruit to the coalition, Syria.

The United States gingerly gave approval to Damascus's recent move against Gen. Aoun in Beirut, hoping the eventual result would be peace. But Syria's brutal political style compels Washington to follow up attentively. It should do so without fear that candor will push Syria out of the Gulf coalition, which President Hafez Assad -- no shrinking violet -- joined not to please Americans but for reasons of his own. It is not, after all, that the Syrians are fastidious about American feelings. After a brief interlude they are back complaining about, yes, American policy toward Israel.