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Inevitably, the Middle East peace process is becoming inevitable. In the face of a pending Security Council resolution calling for a U.N.-sponsored international conference, Israel now has an opportunity to shape its own fate.

Before such a conference, Israel should make every effort to reach some agreement with the Palestinians.

After the gulf crisis is resolved, the Mideast will not be the same as it was when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Israel will be as affected as any Arab country by the coming changes. It can no longer afford to resist Council peace initiatives on the grounds that Council members are prejudiced against it.

Things have changed among the five permanent members. The Soviet Union, under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, has made the United Nations a crucial force for peace. George Bush, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, has done the same thing, creating a united world that has taken impressive collective steps to counter naked aggression.

Today the United States thinks a full-scale Mideast peace conference is premature; tomorrow it might not veto a Council resolution calling for one.

World politics are moving away from Israel's dependence on America's ultimate protection, which has involved automatic vetoes of Council resolutions Israel considers hostile.

It is true that China has not recognized Israel, that the Soviet Union has roots in the Middle East planted in support of Arab interests, that France's only consistent behavior has been unpredictability and that the departure of Israel's staunch ally, Margaret Thatcher, may mean a shift in Britain's policy.

Those countries, however, have cooperated with Bush's decisions in the gulf crisis, which reflect his philosophical and practical predilection for international consensus. Now that the Cold War is over, the U.N.'s response to the crisis indicates it will further turn its attention to stabilizing regions, such as the Middle East, that may disrupt the world.

Understandably, Israel has long resisted a U.N. conference to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. It feared the world would gang up against it, as with the infamous "Zionism equals racism" resolution.

A persuasive reason for Israel to reconsider its old assumptions is the sea change in thinking by the United States, its European allies, as well as Egypt and Syria, which led them to mobilize armed forces in the region in order to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Given the sensitivities of the world's economies to the need to protect oil, Western publics may well demand that once the gulf crisis is over, their leaders may help resolve such explosive Mideast issues as poverty, underdevelopment and the unsettled Palestinians, whether in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon or Jordan.

Americans would insist upon a policy that emphasizes democratic principles and open societies.

Israel can't hold back such a tide; it should not try. While the U.S. tolerates no direct link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and gulf crisis, to assert that Israel is somehow not a piece in the overall regional-security mosaic is naive: The low profile Israel has kept during the gulf crisis has not kept the world from perceiving the underlying connections.

Israel has always behaved as if time was on its side -- that just as things looked bleakest, the Arab world would create a problem or diversion to prevent progress toward a settlement. The Arabs have obliged, mostly with terrorism.

Time, however, may be less cooperative in the future if the Security Council assumes a more active role in maintaining world order.

Israel can take its rightful place in trying to settle the outstanding issues. It should understand that its long-term interest lies in coming to some agreement with the Palestinians in advance of international deliberations -- or, at the very least, to be seen as having made an honest effort to do so. Otherwise, a U.N. conference may try to decide what sort of settlement there should be.

This need not be bad news for Israel. The country has come very close to an agreement with the Palestinians to continue the Camp David peace process. Today there may be a new opportunity to proceed apace with that process -- before the United Nations seizes the initiative.

EDGAR M. BRONFMAN, chairman of Seagram Company Ltd., is president of the World Jewish Congress.

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