THE BEST WAY to keep peace as an option in Israel's spring election is to ensure that momentum is maintained to implement the Wye Plantation agreement.
That calls for Washington, distracted with its own affairs, to lean on the caretaker government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority government of Yasser Arafat to keep their commitments.
The May 4 deadline for agreement on final status cannot be met. In spite of this, nothing should be done to prejudice Israel's May 17 election. Mr. Arafat must not declare statehood unilaterally, but wait to negotiate it.
Most Israelis favor the accord that the Labor government of the late Yitzhak Rabin made with the Palestine Liberation Organization to trade land for peace, and the further agreement made by Mr. Netanyahu.
But trying to hold together a coalition of supporters favoring and opposing the peace accord proved too much even for the wily Mr. Netanyahu. In the end, even he voted to end his regime and hold early elections. He is resourceful and, although down, he cannot be counted out this early.
That does not establish a clear choice in Israel's second and last experiment at voting for a prime minister as though for a president, while also voting for parties for the Knesset.
Mr. Netanyahu, who stands for tough pragmatism in dealing with Palestinians, is plagued by desertions of Likud Party rivals who castigate him as overly or insufficiently accommodationist.
That should leave an opening for the retired general, Ehud Barak, to lead the Labor Party back to power. But that party is mired in a socialist past, tied to elderly secular Israelis of European origin, unable to appeal to the growing Orthodox, Middle Eastern and recently arrived Russian populations.
While two or more Likud defectors are challenging Mr. Netanyahu, retired army chief Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak plans to run for prime minister as an independent. He would steal Mr. Barak's appeal while shunning Labor Party baggage. His popularity may dissipate when he is forced to take positions on issues.
The final lineup of candidates is not clear, but the probability of a runoff election is.
Many Israelis will be voting on narrow lines of ethnicity, government support for religious programs and other issues vital to them as individuals but of little interest to the outside world.
This is frustrating for Palestinians who want to get on with state-building but are mesmerized by watching a fractious democracy such as no Arab country enjoys. Few doubt that Mr. Arafat would like a Labor victory, the Hamas radicals want Likud rejectionist Benny Begin to win, and all are astute enough to know that their meddling would be counterproductive.
The outcome of Israel's election will determine whether the peace process moves forward or breaks down. Israeli voters should consider carefully which they want.
Pub Date: 1/02/99