NEXT Tuesday's election in Israel could be a turning point in Middle Eastern affairs. If Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin can cling to his shrinking lead in the polls and pull out a victory, he will take a different set of priorities to the Arab-Israeli peace talks now under way. He'll be willing to trade much of the occupied territories for peace, and he'll be ready to curtail the expansion of Jewish settlements in the territories.
Even if Mr. Rabin ends up heading a coalition government in partnership with the currently ruling Likud block - which most observers think more probable than an outright Labor win - the approach to peace negotiations is likely to shift from the hard line of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
This is what the Bush administration, chief sponsor of the talks, various Arab participants, as well as many Israelis are counting on. But their hopes are by no means assured of quick fulfillment.
To begin with, the Israeli electorate holds numerous wild cards. While most voters may stay with the large blocs - Likud or Labor - that they have supported before, 15 to 20 percent are likely to cross over. They are the object of intense competition, as Rabin emphasizes his toughness on security issues to woo traditional Likud supporters and Shamir highlights his participation in the peace process to lure those who might lean toward Labor.
Since the late '70s, Israeli voters have moved steadily rightward, strengthening the Likud. Rabin has been able to arrest that shift to some extent, but even voters who like him may still be so leery of Labor that they'll go with Likud. On the other hand, polls have shown that as many as 20-30 percent of Likud voters back territorial compromise to achieve peace - in contrast to Shamir's stance. That's hopeful for Rabin.
Another wild card is violence. Stabbings and other assaults by Arab radicals invariably help Israel's hard-liners.
Security is clearly uppermost in Israelis' minds, with the crucial question being whether a more flexible position on land-for-peace will enhance or undermine Israel's safety. Economic development is critical, too. Both concerns can best be addressed through progress at the peace table.