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A fragile unity in Israel

ISRAELI politics has taken a predictable turn toward another ``national unity'' government. Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres have agreed to put aside their considerable differences and once again share power. The challenges facing their country, heightened by the recent American decision to open a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, have made a broad-based coalition, with at least the semblance of unity, preferable to a narrow alliance with Israel's religious extremists. Those who yearn for peace in the Mideast can breathe a little easier that religious and nationalistic zealotry won't have a dominant voice in this government. Many in Israel and the United States are relieved that the divisive ``who-is-a-Jew'' issue pushed by the religious parties can now fade.

But the absence of one kind of extremism doesn't mean that the new Likud-Labor union offers much hope for flexibility on the crucial question of how to deal with the Palestinians. Measures against the intifadah are likely to be just as harsh and counterproductive.

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Likud will now control the Foreign Ministry as well as the prime ministership. Mr. Peres, who has expressed a willingness to talk with any Palestinian who genuinely wants peace, will shift from foreign minister to finance minister.

His move, though it puts him in a poorer position to put the brakes on Mr. Shamir's hard-line foreign policy, will allow Labor to control the distribution of state funds and thus help bail out the Histadrut, Israel's huge, but financially tottering trade union structure. This is essential to Labor's health as a political party.

As part of the coalition bargain, Peres will also hold veto power over any move to expand the number of new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories beyond the eight agreed to for 1989. Shamir, as part of a deal to draw extreme nationalists into a narrow coalition, had been planning to add as many as 40 settlements on the West Bank. Any new settlements would only impede the peace process, making an ultimate territorial compromise that much more difficult.

The US government, with George Bush at the helm, will probably find this national-unity government no easier to deal with than its predecessor was. It will be riven by controversy as extremes strain to be heard. Patience will be needed in Washington and elsewhere, as well as a persistent hope that the necessity of talking with the Palestinians will win out within Israel. Meanwhile, Washington is right to affirm its ties with Israel even while exploring what those on the other side of the Mideast divide have to say.

Despite the rigid stance being taken by Israel's leadership, and the rumblings of discontent from Palestinian quarters disagreeing with Yasser Arafat's recent words of moderation, this remains a time of hope in the Mideast. Antagonistic positions built up over years of conflict are just beginning to soften. All peoples in the region have an interest in seeing that process continue.

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