Israel is in the midst of one of its most fascinating election seasons. For only the second time - and possibly the last, given efforts now to repeal the election law - Israelis will be voting directly for prime minister on May 17.
Moreover, a new centrist party has joined the fray. And, adding to the excitement, James Carville, President Clinton's former spinmeister, is advising Labor Party leader Ehud Barak on how to get Israel "unstuck," as the campaign slogan goes, from the mud into which Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu has plunged it.
But underlying all the hoopla is a more serious issue. Israel is doomed to political gridlock unless party leaders can form a unity government strong enough to make peace with security.
To form a government, a party needs 61 seats in Israel's 120-member Knesset. But neither Labor nor Likud are likely to win even 40 seats. This means they cannot form a government alone. To do so, they must wheel and deal with parties on the far right and left whose seats can give them a razor-thin majority in the Knesset.
Doing this threatens Israel's position in the peace process. The parties on either extreme can threaten to quit the government, thus depriving it of the 61 seats needed to stay in power, unless they get what they want. Pressure from the right can stall the peace process and anger the public; from the left, it can encourage excessive concessions to the Palestinians and undermine public confidence.
This structural problem is now worsened by the emergence of the new Center Party, which is headed by former defense chief Yitzhak Mordechai, and includes Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the popular former army chief of staff and protg of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The centrists are certain to produce a Ross Perot-like effect. By siphoning off support from the Likud and Labor Parties, the Center Party will make it harder for either of them to produce a coalition government without including extremist parties.
This puts an even higher premium on forming a unity government of two or even three competing parties. On the surface, it appears doing so would be difficult. For one thing, the candidates are in a mudslinging fest. But beyond the rhetoric, Mr. Barak, MR. Netanyahu, and Mr. Mordechai sing a similar tune: land for peace and security. Despite their egos, they could produce a unity government in one day if they so wished. Barak and Netanyahu, after all, are old friends who fought in the same elite army unit. And Mordechai's Center Party, which has been slipping in the polls, would delight in having a role in a unity government. If the hawkish Yitzhak Shamir and dovish Shimon Peres could do it in the 1980s, so can they.
Regardless of who wins in a direct election, forming a unity government will decrease the influence of extremist parties by making them less important to any ruling coalition's survival. A unity government will also be more likely to deliver what it promises, and to deter and deflect internal and external efforts by adversaries of the peace process to divide, manipulate, or threaten the government. And it will enhance the legitimacy and longevity of peace agreements by including more than one party in the process.
None of this was the case with Netanyahu's coalition, which was hostage to far-right religious parties and which fell because of that. Nor, incidentally, would it be the case with any successor, right or left.
Those who argue that only a Labor-led government can make peace miss the point. Such a government would face the same structural problems that plagued Netanyahu, except from the left. It is no surprise, then, that Netanyahu is trying to paint Barak as a leftist; as someone who said that if he were a Palestinian, he would have been a terrorist too. Most Israelis hate such hazy-eyed verbiage. The only real question now is who will win the election. The winner will be tempted to form a one-party led coalition, but even if this is possible in a three-party race, it cannot succeed in the long run.
Rather, the winner should choose one or both of his competitors to form a moderate block that could control 65 to 75 Knesset seats, depending on the final arrangement.
Israel's multiparty system never made much sense. And it is now more problematic with the emergence of the Center Party. As Israel tries to strike the golden mean between being so tough on the peace process that it stalls and so weak that security and public confidence are jeopardized, one answer looms - unity government.
*Steve Yetiv is a political science professor at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va.