THE new coalition government just achieved in Israel was a welcome event in Washington for a particular reason. It united the two major political parties in Israel at a time when a major push toward a Middle East peace was getting under way.
The first necessary step toward such a peace was to get Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to accept the right of Israel to exist. The final necessary step will be to get Israel to recognize the right of the Palestinians to exist, and to govern themselves.
An Israeli government made up of Likud in coalition with the fundamentalist splinter groups would never be able to recognize a Palestinian state.
Nor could a coalition of the Labor Party with liberal splinter groups dare to make peace (although advocating it) while the Likud party was in opposition.
Neither Likud nor Labor alone would dare to pay the price Israel must pay for peace with the other major party in opposition.
But a coalition that unites the two would battle over the price to pay in private and, at least in theory, could arrive at a formula that could end the Arab-Israel wars.
It takes a long stretch of the imagination to see a day when Yitzhak Shamir could bring himself to agree to surrender the bulk of the occupied territories to the Arabs. Yet the great anti-communist Richard Nixon was able to make peace with communist China.
Mr. Shamir certainly would never allow his archrival, Shimon Peres, to make peace. He would not trust Mr. Peres to get the best possible terms for Israel. Shamir himself would never give up an inch of the occupied territories if he could avoid doing so. But people who have talked to him privately say that he has come to realize that someday Israel is going to have to let go of most of the occupied lands.
Israel can afford to go on holding all the occupied territories, which means not making peace, so long as the United States is willing to go on paying the costs of an Israeli state in a condition of continuing hostility with its Arab neighbors. No peace has been possible up to this time, for the simple reason that Washington could be expected to pay whatever the costs.
And the US would go on paying the costs of an embattled Israel so long as the American Jewish community was solidly behind such an Israel.
The big new element in the pattern is that the leaders of the major Jewish organizations have agreed to allow the US to talk directly with the PLO.
Not since the Arab-Israel wars began 42 years ago have so many essential pieces been in place for a peace effort.
We have the consent of the American Jewish community for the beginning of a process that must end, if it is ever to end successfully, in a withdrawal by Israeli armed forces from most of the occupied territories.
We have the public acceptance by the official leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, of the concept of a future Palestine alongside the state of Israel.
We have a US government ready and willing to push on toward a peace to be based on Israel's ultimate withdrawal from the occupied lands.
We have an incoming US government headed by George Bush, who, since election day, has been informed of the new peace process and who gave his consent to it. Incidentally, the recognition of the PLO was done deliberately between election and inauguration to clear the way for the Bush administration.
The process is under way. It will probably last months, or even years. The final question is whether Shamir can ever bring himself to give up what he calls Judea and Samaria.