By now it is no surprise that Palestinians propel their grievances against Israel into the center of every international forum to which they have access. But it remains something of a conundrum that so many other nations let them get away with it. The energies of thousands and the hopes of millions go into the preparation of such events as the U.N. World Conference on Women, which has just taken place in Copenhagen. These extravaganzas, despite their limitations, can focus attention on neglected issues and create a community of concern. At Copenhagen, however, these opportunities were severely crowded by a Palestinian-led assault on Israel.

The flavor was conveyed by the voting on an amendment -- on irrelevant and harmful to the purposes of the conference -- to provide "political assistance," among other services, to Palestinian women "in consultation with the PLO." The Russian delegate shouted "da" for the Ukrainian delegate. When the Pakistani woman, confused, voted on the other side, the assembly howled with laughter and she switched. Third World delegates exulted as the tally mounted. Once the vote was over, delegates apologized for their votes, some Western delegates -- who mostly abstained -- to the Arabs, and non-aligned delegates to the West.

To the American delegation, which had worked hard on the "plan for action" and finally had to vote against it, and to the Carter administration, which has labored both for peace in the Mideast and for common ground in the Third World, the political pollution was a severe disappointment. It should deepen misgivings about the value of these forums. Certainly, it should stir second thoughts about the wisdom of supporting politicization, as the American chairman, White House aide Sarah Weddington, did in singling out apartheid's effects on "non-white women in South Africa and Namibia." When the United States hops on one political bandwagon at an ostensibly non-political conference, it is poorly placed to protest when another comes roaring along.

Israelis claim that they made West Bank women among the first in the Arab world to get the vote, that infant mortality has been pushed below the level of any Arab country, that the number of Palestinian girls in school has doubled, etc. Palestinians observe that women have developed a keen political consciousness in the struggle against Israel. No doubt they are both right. Back in Copenhagen, meanwhile, the truly ominous new threat to the global movement for equality of women, in Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, appears to have gone unremarked.