THE MIDDLE EAST peace process is badly bloodied; whether its condition is fatal, only time will tell. In any event, it is the victim of Israeli and Palestinian extremists alike, though by no means equally.
The far larger culpability lies with the Hamas terrorists who sent repeated suicide bombers into Israel with precisely the aim of frightening Israelis into a hard defensive shell that would suit Hamas' peace-killing purpose.If it is a shame the Israeli electorate reacted just as Hamas had hoped, it can hardly be counted shocking that a people already much warred upon, newly savaged by 62 terrorist murders and promised no end of more, would shy from a course that would further enrage Arab rejectionists before it could finally isolate and neutralize them.
Still, Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-line Likud bloc owe no small part of their victory, uncomfortably, to Yigal Amir, at the end a lone assassin but incited in part by Israeli fantasists who imagine the restoration of an ill-defined historic Israel that could be won only by such aggression the prize would be spoiled in its winning.
Had Yitzhak Rabin lived, solid and broadly credible, there is every reason to believe he could have won the mandate for steady progress to peace withheld from Shimon Peres, whom Israeli voters four times before denied the prime ministership even in less anxious times.
Amir, in short, had to strike for Hamas to prevail. Extremists concur in their common craft, even when they would make opposed outcomes with it.
Peace may not be lost. Netanyahu's mandate is uncertain, its margin thin. It probably can't support any heavier burden than greater defensiveness and skepticism in sustaining the peace process.
The process itself has developed a momentum of sorts. It is bringing Israel foreign investment, prosperity and unaccustomed ease in its international relations. It is unlikely the electorate meant to forfeit all that.
Netanyahu's conciliatory victory speech Sunday was encouraging, but he ironically shares an unfortunate tendency with Yasser Arafat to speak differently to different audiences, so his real intentions are muddied, and he represents political forces with much more grim agendas than merely a heightened alertness to security.
If the peace process has not been surely ended by Likud's election, it has unquestionably been made far more difficult, and not alone by Likud.
Arab militants will be emboldened, probably at first not so much to act against Israel directly as to use the outcome to rally flagged constituencies for confrontation. Jordan and its King Hussein could be especially vulnerable.
If Likud, under Netanyahu, is smart it will avoid provoking that reaction with pointed, only ideological gestures. If wise, it will understand that it leads a divided and uneasy population, not a vividly reactionary one.
And if Likud has soul, it will be sobered from its most aggravating impulses - resumed Jewish settlement on the West Bank, for instance - by the knowledge that, however unwittingly, it is the political beneficiary of bloody-minded forces that hoped to incite its worst.