Israeli elections often seem to achieve little more than to set the terms for the next one, and the election of February 2009 is no exception.
The most likely prospect is of paralysis followed by instability. Whether the eventual coalition is narrowly rightist, a grand affair of the leading parties, or an arrangement of disparate parties across the spectrum, it will be a matter of time before some hard choice has to be faced and the act of choosing will cause the coalition to split.
If actual “peace” negotiations commence, the cracks will soon start to appear. Positions have been staked out with such a lack of equivocation that it will be hard, particularly for the more rightist parties, to take responsibility for such steps as handing back the Golan Heights to Syria or accepting the division of Jerusalem.
The instability on the Israeli side is of course nothing compared to that on the Palestinian side. One of the features of the recent Gaza war was the use made of it by Hamas to deal with Fatah sympathisers whom they have accused of being collaborators with Israel. One Palestinian institute reported six killed and another 35 shot in the knees or beaten. Other estimates are much higher. Last November, Hamas rebuffed an Egyptian attempt to form a unity government, although it claims to be still interested, and after the recent war Hamas may feel that it needs to show a more conciliatory face to the rest of the Arab world. For any serious political engagement with Israel, Hamas will have to stand back and let Fatah do the talking, somehow managing to maintain its anti-Zionist purity while claiming to be ready to honour any deal actually agreed.
Even if Israelis and Palestinians cobble together viable coalitions over the coming weeks, it is hard to imagine either being strong enough to sustain a serious bilateral negotiation by themselves. For the new American administration, this provides both a problem and an opportunity.
Unlike his two predecessors, who became convinced of the need for energetic engagement only late in their presidencies, Barack Obama has already sent signals that he sees the Middle East as a top foreign policy priority. If, like Bill Clinton, he sees his role as a super-mediator, trying to help the parties reach the necessary compromises, he will fail.
He could well, however, ask the parties to respond to American ideas about the form of a potential settlement (which makes it harder for them to reject particular clauses) and will place the specific issues of Israel and Palestine in the context of a much wider complex of agreements and understandings, involving most of the key regional players. This may have the advantage of reconstructing familiar issues in new forms, with different sets of costs and gains.
On the other hand, it may all just get too complicated and collapse because of the need to extract too many concessions from too many different players at once. American activism of this sort can place a strain on relations with Israel. The choice for the new Prime Minister may turn out to be between a row with the US, its best international friend over making concessions on territorial issues, or an internal row within the coalition about agreeing to concessions.