THE best that can immediately be said for Israel's new government is that it removes some uncertainties. If pragmatism reigns, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir may be able to get his Cabinet to concentrate on resettling Soviet immigrants and avoid major conflicts with Washington. The possibilities for conflict are obvious. The new housing minister, Ariel Sharon, will energetically attack the problems of placing thousands of newcomers. But if his policies flout US objections to expanded settlement in the occupied territories, the Bush administration will be forced to respond - including, presumably, withholding US aid for the resettlement effort.
Mr. Shamir says the new government will pursue peace. But his top ministers include three Likud members - Foreign Minister David Levy, Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai, and Mr. Sharon - who steadfastly resisted the prime minister's own plan for elections in the West Bank and Gaza. A ``land for peace'' formula is out of the question with this new coalition.
The new government also promises to end the Palestinian uprising. This has an ominous sound. What could go beyond the beatings, destruction of homes, and heavy use of troops already employed? Palestinian leaders say their people are ready to show the new government they can't be subdued by force. Radical elements doubtless relish the prospect of greater clashes.
Unless extremists on both sides are held in check, a cycle of violence - already begun - could tragically escalate.
Many Palestinians will see this new, stridently right-wing Israeli government as shutting off any option to talk. The Palestine Liberation Organization faces intense pressures to forsake the route of negotiation taken a year and a half ago and return to more confrontational tactics. Its own militants, such as the faction that tried to land guerrillas on Israeli beaches, are forcing that issue. An end to the PLO dialogue with the United States, unproductive as it has been, will sharpen the pressures.
Far-sighted people in the region continue to recognize that only negotiation and dialogue can bring peace. And it's anyone's guess how long Shamir's fragile government will last. Its public backing in Israel is thin; new elections could change the picture.
The US, meanwhile, should resist its own polarizing pressures and hold to a mediating role in the Mideast. But it can do so only by maintaining communication with all sides.