ANOTHER CHANCE TO nudge peace forward in the Middle East slipped away all but unremarked recently. Lebanon rejected an Israeli offer to withdraw from the 9-mile-deep "security zone" Israel has maintained in southern Lebanon for nearly 13 years.

Israel established the zone as a hedge against repeated murderous attacks on Israeli communities by the Hezbollah terrorists who infest the area.In the past, Israel had said it would recall its troops only if an independent peace-keeping force took their place or as part of a broad peace settlement with Syria and Lebanon.

Israeli officials recently proposed withdrawal in exchange for a commitment by Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah and take a firm hand against cross-border guerrilla attacks. Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez has said no, citing a 1978 U.N. resolution that had called for unconditional Israeli withdrawal after another defensive occupation.

Translation: Never mind that Hezbollah is a subsidiary of Iran's ayatollahs. Syria, rather than negotiate with Israel, uses Hezbollah's zealots in Lebanon to pressure Israel to relinquish the formerly Syrian Golan Heights that Israel occupied after Syria attacked Israel in 1967.

The Lebanese irritant lies at considerable political distance from the core issue of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, but its resolution would improve the atmospherics for that tougher task. It would add to the general security Israelis rightly demand and would ease the high costs of security's current, imperfect maintenance.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has properly been held to international rebuke for his government's gratuitous provocations of Palestinians and for his unwillingness or inability to shake his coalition loose from its thralldom to a rejectionist minority.

The flip side of that coin is the international inattention to, and consequent failure to support, Netanyahu's better impulses. His government's politically difficult, and Israel's emotionally painful, withdrawal from Hebron in the West Bank was undercredited, for instance.

That's all the more so important, coming as it does after the latest crisis with Saddam Hussein once again brought Palestinians boiling into the streets to whoop it up for Saddam.

Washington is said to be looking for ways to get Israel off the dime in the peace process. Fine, as long it understands there's more than Netanyahu's stubbornness holding it there.