The failure of Israel's balloting this week to reach anything like a conclusion has to be disappointing to Israel and its friends. It means the deep policy splits in that nation - over future withdrawal from Lebanon, the need to stem super-inflation by austerity, over a peace with Jordan to permit a political and territorial solution to Israel's occupation of the West Bank - will linger longer. All that has happened in the electorate, after months of heated campaigning, is an erosion in strength for both the governing Likud coalition and its Labor opposition, and a further drift of support to the fringe parties.
The underlying question of what kind of society the Israelis want to forge goes unanswered. Competition continues unabated between the two concepts of Israel - one represented by a secure territory from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, the other by compromise on non-Jewish territorial and political claims to maintain Israel's Jewish and democratic characteristics.
If in the next few days either Labor or the Likud gains enough of an edge to put together a coalition government, it is hard to see that there exists enough of a consensus to take decisive action on the economic, Lebanon, or West Bank fronts. That is true also if the two major political blocs forge a national-unity government to deal with the economy and hold the line on security issues. Neither Shimon Peres, who led Labor, nor Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who leads the Likud bloc, emerges from the campaign as a successful leader, capable of holding his constituency together in any future tough bargaining on these issues. Among the smaller parties, Ezer Weizman's Yahad Party had hoped to gain as a moderating force. Instead, Meir Kehane's forces, who advocate expulsion of Arabs from Israel, gained seats.
Under circumstances where the established leaders could count on a following, a national-unity cabinet for a limited period would seem the sensible route to go. But Mr. Shamir as well as the Labor bloc may not be able to accept a government in which former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, still a force in the Likud lineup, could claim a post.
Israelis are already talking of another election in November. It is hard to see how Mr. Peres, having failed three times to lead his party back to power, could be given yet another chance. Possibly this time someone like Itzhak Navon, regarded as a more temperate leader but lacking a political base, will win the nod. In any event, Israel seems not only mired down in hard issues but unable to shed the old generation of leaders who led it into its problems. Possibly out of this immobility a new energetic leadership will push to the fore.
Meanwhile, outsiders can hope for some start in the resolution of Israel's impasses, although no immediate role presents itself for outsiders to play.
Jordan is kept on the fence; King Hussein can see little in this week's results to suggest that Israel's government will soon be in a position to take a risk for a peaceful West Bank solution.
Washington itself is in the midst of a presidential campaign, covering every base in its approach to Israel. President Reagan last fall embraced Likud's Shamir in a show of strategic alliance between the United States and Israel; lately his State Department has been saying that the administration would prefer a Labor victory, for the sake of greater promise for a West Bank initiative. The Democratic platform and presidential ticket are firm and undiscriminating in their avowals of support for Israel. No nudge from Washington can be anticipated until after the US elections this fall, if then. Meanwhile the status quo on the West Bank settlements continues, and Israel adjusts its sense of its territory from the Jordan to the sea.
It is a measure of a democracy like Israel's how seriously it takes such issues as its survival, how it manages a free economy in an otherwise hostile Middle East, and how it reconciles a religious identity with a secular state. Israel's divisions are not just the creations of rival factions, but arise from contrasting tendencies and values in the people at large. One hopes for a new leadership that will seize the opportunity of today's apparent impasses on territory, security, and national identity, and will provide the vision and decisiveness a mature democracy deserves.