THE Middle East peace talks have hit the shoals of Israeli politics. The talks may not sink, but they could be battered a bit before Israel's next election, probably in June.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has stuck with the peace process despite protests from extreme right-wing elements in his government. But now that his coalition has splintered, Mr. Shamir has to choose: Should he continue to back the peace effort and thus appeal to the majority of Israelis who favor the talks, or should he maintain his right flank with statements about the impossibility of trading land for peace?
He'll probably try to do both. In recent days, the prime minister has trumpeted his support for settlements in the occupied territories and his determination never to give up an inch of land. He's also said the talks would continue, despite the distractions of a political campaign within Israel.
Central to that campaign, and to the future course of peace negotiations, is the Bush administration's response to Israel's request for loan guarantees to help resettle immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Israel would like to get the guarantees without conditions, but that won't happen. The administration has reaffirmed its demand for assurances that funds made available through the guarantees won't be used to expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Should the US waver on this point, its role as mediator in the talks would dissolve. The Palestinians fear that ongoing settlement activity will eventually absorb more and more West Bank real estate and leave them nothing over which to have autonomy.
The autonomy question undid Shamir's coalition. Israel's ultranationalist and religious parties don't want to hear the word. Yet autonomy, leading to genuine self-government, is the heart of the crucial Israeli-Palestinian facet of the peace talks. Can a rightist Israeli government dependent on the support of small extremist parties - which could easily reemerge from coming elections - ever negotiate faithfully on Palestinian autonomy?
That question hangs in the air as Israeli politics accelerate toward the June vote. The prime minister, conscious of the need not to alienate Washington, won't forsake the peace talks altogether. The next session of the talks - dealing with regional issues beyond relations between Israel and its immediate neighbors - is scheduled for Moscow this week. All involved will be looking for signs that Shamir's commitment goes beyond his need to please the US.