SLAM. That's the sound you hear from Israel of the window to peace in the Middle East being shut. In this week's elections, the harder-line Likud party, which takes a no-concessions, tough-it-out kind of line with the Arabs, edged a little ahead of the Labor party, which favors negotiations with the Arabs and an international peace conference. With the results that close, the minority religious parties, which fared surprisingly well, must be wooed and won to form a coalition government with one or other of the principal parties.
But the problem is not that the harder-line party won in a slight shift to the right. The problem is that the outcome was inconclusive. More than 80 percent of the voters - an extraordinary turnout - cast their ballots. But they remain essentially deadlocked on the question of how to handle the Palestinian problem and peace. There is no mandate for decisive action.
The Arabs did their cause no good with car bombings against Israelis on the eve of the election.
And the Palestinians are offering little evidence that progress will be made on their side at the Palestine National Council meeting due to be held in Algiers Nov. 12. The Palestine Liberation Organization seems unable to get its act together on the question of recognizing Israel's right to exist - a prerequisite for any serious discussion with that body of Israel's citizenry inclined to negotiate. The prospect for any early breakthrough on the Middle East peace front is thus dim.
What happens now?
If the Likud party is successful in forming a government, the outlook is for more of the same violence in the West Bank and Gaza as has occurred over the past year. Since last December, Palestinians in these Israeli-occupied territories have been in revolt. More than 300 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces, and 7,000 wounded. The Palestinian rock throwing and firebombing will go on. So, too, will the skirmishing and shooting by Israeli soldiers.
Although the military is frustrated by a campaign it believes requires a political solution, a government headed by Likud would require continued toughness in the campaign to bring the insurrection to an end.
However, with the Israeli withdrawal, for punitive reasons, of many administrative services in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians have ironically generated a new sense of self-reliance and confidence. They have replaced much of the Israeli structure with an administration of their own.
Meanwhile, on the militant side, although their losses have been heavy, their gains in terms of international publicity and sympathy have been significant enough to ensure that their anti-Israeli campaign continues.
The prospects, then, of any dramatic breakthrough on the Middle East peace front seem bleak. Face-to-face negotiations between the parties with the heft to make any deal stick seem remote.
If there is to be intervention by outside powers, such as the United States, it can hardly come soon. Americans are in the waning days of an election campaign, and facing a fallow period until a new president is installed. He will have to assemble his team, identify the foreign policy issues, assign them priorities, and determine the diplomatic strategy for attacking the problems. The US is months away from any new initiative on the Middle East.
For the moment, the window seems tightly closed again to the prospects of peace for the Palestinians.