BENJAMIN NETANYAHU's apparent victory as prime minister of Israel along with a fractious Knesset can only disappoint proponents of peace between Israel and its neighbors. This is a setback for the U.S. government, which has invested mightily for peace in the Middle East, and for those Arab leaders cooperating with the effort.
Israeli voters did not reject peace. They doubted Arab commitment to it. They voted their anger and anxiety at acts of terror against Israelis from Hamas and Hezbollah, which dramatically increased with autonomy for the Palestinian Authority. The near-dead-heat which Mr. Netanyahu appears to have won, pending the counting of absentee ballots, responds to the suicide bombings and perpetuates the Israeli tradition of not trusting Shimon Peres with national security.
A Netanyahu government will not roll back what Prime Minister Peres accomplished in the Oslo accord with the PLO. But Mr. Netanyahu campaigned on positions that could erode that agreement and hinder progress: opposition to swapping the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, denial of statehood for the Palestinian Authority, refusal ever to consider a Palestinian dimension to Jerusalem.
Yet, while one can imagine a scenario in which what has been accomplished unravels, this need not be the end of peace. Mr. VTC Netanyahu, a modern and highly Americanized politician, may never have meant all he said. He will be constrained by Israelis who did want Mr. Peres to finish making peace, by the portion of the Arab world that has accommodated Israel and by the United States, which is too deeply committed to brokering peace to quit.
It took a Richard Nixon to recognize China and a Menachem Begin -- Mr. Netanyahu's idol -- to make peace with Egypt. So it may take a Benjamin Netanyahu to complete the peace with Palestinians and Syria. Unlike Mr. Peres, he would not have an opposition leader named Netanyahu to worry about.
The nature of a Netanyahu government is not clear. Both major parties, Labor and Likud, lost seats in the Knesset or parliament. Small parties with specific agendas and a willingness to deal, gained them. The prime minister must forge coalitions. He might even propose a Likud-Labor coalition as the most workable.
The election was a setback for peace but does not end the process. Proponents of peace in Israel, Arab countries and the United States may have to work forcefully to make that clear.
Pub date 5/31/96