THE LAST thing the Middle East needs is a new forum in which to agitate the Palestine question, as the United Nations secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, now recommends. To be fair, he had been asked by an aroused Security Council after the Jerusalem tragedy of Oct. 8 to examine the protection of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. But that instruction lacked balance, context and a considered purpose, and the secretary general's response supplied scant corrective. He would toss the protection issue to a meeting of the 164 signatories of the Geneva Convention, which sees to civilians under military occupation. Propaganda, bitterness and distraction are the likeliest result.

With a toll near 20 in just one incident, the protection of Palestinians is incontestably a major issue. How might it better be served?

1) As the occupying power and the stronger and armed party, Israel bears the first responsibility. Obviously there is a lot of room for its security forces to anticipate events better and to use tactics and weapons that limit harm to innocents. Focused and fair international criticism can supplement domestic review to help make this happen.

2) West Bank and Gaza Palestinians could, if they chose, curtail the tactics -- stones and knives, deployment of children -- that provoke confrontation. The secretary general's report treats all aspects of the intifada as equally meritorious expressions of Palestinian nationalism. It ignores the role that the Palestinians' tactical decisions play in their own misfortune.

3) Far and away the most effective protection for West Bankers, everyone realizes, lies in a political process. If the Middle East were engaged in serious peace talks, the matter of physical treatment would shrink to manageable proportions. Blockage on the political side creates the grating standoff of Palestinian rage and Israeli stubbornness.

The Iraq crisis necessarily dominates current attention. It has made its own contribution to the shape of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The familiar problem of Palestinian political rights remains to be dealt with; Washington's abiding embarrassment is that Palestinians had become readier than Israelis to speak of exchanging territory for peace. But Iraq's crude threats against Israel underline the legitimate Israeli requirement to be accepted by the larger Arab community. It is on these two parallel tracks that diplomacy must unfold as Iraq's menace is subdued. To convey such a determination will help the United States blunt Iraq's challenge and prepare for the next stage.