The Mideast peace train may soon screech to a halt - or just jump to a new track - with the apparent victory of Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu as Israel's next prime minister.
But with the slimmest of margins - 50.3 percent to 49.6 percent - Mr. Netanyahu's "peace through security" approach could be tempered by the voices of those pushing for a faster peace - voices represented by peace architect Shimon Peres, the current prime minister and Labor party leader.
Also clamoring for a share of power and a say in any peace plans will be the small parties in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. This menagerie of religious, immigrant, and other groups gained 23 seats in the 120-seat body.
Netanyahu, who would become Israel's youngest prime minister, has vowed to block the creation of a Palestinian state, slow down final settlement talks with the Palestinians, expand the Jewish settlement on the West Bank, and retain Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
His first test will be whether to honor the formal agreement entered into by Mr. Peres for the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the West Bank town of Hebron, immediately after the elections. Netanyahu's coalition partners strongly resist the withdrawal.
A Netanyahu government is also likely to refuse to hand over the strategic Golan Heights to neighboring Syria in return for a peace accord. This move is regarded by Peres and the United States as the key to broadening Israel's tentative peace with the Arab world.
Tension on that and other peace issues could signal an era of Israeli confrontation with the Arab world, the US, and Europe.
"Nothing could have happened to slow down the peace efforts initiated by Peres and his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin more than this outcome," said Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld.
Some 120,000 absentee votes are still to be counted. But these are mostly soldiers - who usually vote for Likud.
The outcome left the Peres camp in shock. "This is almost unbelievable," said Alon Liel, director of the National Planning Authority in the office of the prime minister. "If Netanyahu puts together a narrow coalition and pays his political debt to the two religious parties that supported his candidacy, there will be a serious problem to move forward on the peace track."
Peres, a protg of Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, called an early election in February after assuming the post of prime minister following the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November.
Because of the unprecedented split vote some observers suggest that a national unity government could be formed between Likud and Labor. At one point during the election campaign for the vote, in which a prime minister was elected separately from the Knesset, Netanyahu hinted that he might consider such an arrangement if he won.
But an official in the Netanyahu camp, who insisted on anonymity, said yesterday that he doubted whether Netanyahu would make the offer as he would be able to put together a coalition without Labor.
But for Charles Liebman, a political scientist at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University, a unity government is "the only thing that could save the day now."
Liebman says that Israel's new electoral system had allowed Israelis for the first time to vote according to their private interests rather than putting the national interest first.
"The small parties all did well at the expense of the larger parties which mistakenly focused only on national issues like security and peace," Mr. Liebman said.
"But I think it's going to boomerang on the smaller parties because there are too many of them and they are too strong to all get what they want," he said.
Liebman said that while Netanyahu would have little difficulty in putting together a right-religious coalition, it would be difficult for him to govern in the face of confrontation with the US and Europe and with 45 percent or more of Israeli voters.
Peres officials say there is some chance of Labor accepting an offer for an alliance with Netanyahu, who might need Labor to prevent Israel from being isolated from its allies.
"But the problem is that Netanyahu will first have to repay his political debt to the two religious parties that supported him and seek their permission for a unity government," Liel said.
The new prime minister has 45 days to present a new government to the Knesset. If Netanyahu is the victor, Peres will continue to act as prime minister until the new government is confirmed.
Netanyahu, often called Bibi, will have to opt for a national unity government in which Labor is given the important ministerial posts for defense and foreign relations, Liebman said.
"The unity government option would also enable Netanyahu to by-pass hardliners in his own ranks like former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and right-wing Tsomet faction leader Rafael Eitan," he said.
"The reality is that Bibi's [Netanyahu's] hands are going to be tied with 45 percent of the country bitterly opposed to his moves," Liebman said.
Also factoring into Netanyahu's ability to govern will be the newly powerful independent parties. According to the near-final tally, Likud and Labor, the two major parties that have driven Israeli politics since the formation of the Jewish state in 1948, lost heavily to religious, immigrant, and smaller parties which scored some stunning gains.
The strengthening of the three religious parties, from 16 to 24 Knesset seats, and the emergence of Natan Sharansky's Israel Be'aliya, which demands housing and employment concessions for Russian immigrants, were the two biggest surprises of the parliamentary elections.
The new electoral system, which was designed to reduce the influence of the smaller parties, has increased their size and influence and reduced the strengths of the two major parties, analysts said.
"Without the two big parties you cannot have a properly functioning parliamentary system in Israel," said Hebrew University's Wolfsfeld, noting that the combined power of Likud and Labor had been reduced from 84 to 65 seats. He said middle parties like Israel Be'aliya and the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party Shas would now be in a much stronger position to bring down the government if they did not get their way and would set their leaders up as kingmakers in forming a ruling coalition.