The failure of negotiations to bring an influential centrist party into the next Israeli government can be seen as a setback both to the chances for a stable government here and to the hopes of the Carter administration for meaningful progress this year toward a Middle East peace settlement.
The hardline tone of the negotiations was set by the leader of the right-wing Likud Party, Menachem Begin, and Begin's operating style and strongly held hawkish political beliefs may prove to be the key feature of the new Israeli government.
The centrist Democratic Movement for Change, which voted overwhelmingly last night against joining Begin's party in a Likud-led coalition, had been expected by many observers to exert a moderating infuence on Likud and its conservative religious allies.
Begin, an experienced parliamentarian, is flexible enough to change his tactics if necessary. But it is considered very unlikely that Begin is going to change his mind and be flexible about a firm and absolute commitment that he has openly held since he first took arms against the British mandate in the 1940s.
In the coalition negotiations, according to Democratic Movement officials, Begin made it clear that he was not going to allow the Movement to have a position in the government that could thwart or modify his goals even if it meant foregoing the safety margin that their 15 additional parliamentary seats would provide.
This was in marked contrast to Begin's willingness to make concessions to the National Religious Party, with 12 seats, and the Agudat Yisrael, with 4 seats, 3 on his right flank. With these conservation parties, the Likud-led coalition has 63 votes in the 120-member Parliament.
It was said at the Democratic Movement meeting last night that it seemed as though Begin did not really want the Movement in his government despite his calls for a broad-based coalition. Likud sources have hinted that if Begin could not have a government of national unity including all the major parties, and if the Democratic Movement would not compromise its dovish positions, he might rather work with a small, cohesive coalition over which he could exercise maximum personal control.
Everything Begin has written and said in the years since the fighting in the 1940s - and not even his most vociferous political opponents challenge his honesty and dedication - points to his belief that everything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean rightfully belongs to Israel and should never be surrendered.
Begin's guerrilla organization, Irgun Zvai Leumi, was considered to be an extremist and terrorist group not only by the British and the Arabs, who bore the brunt of the Irgun's lash during the 1940s, but also by the mainstream of organized Jewish resistance.
This extremism was shown in the Irgun's unwillingness to compromise and its readiness to use violence.
Begin's personal account of the anti-British struggle, "The Revolt," reveals his commitment to the idea that "The world does not pity the slaughtered, it only respects those who fight." In another chapter he says, "We fight, therefore we are."
Many Israelis who have known Begin over the years say they have trouble convincing foreigners these days that when it comes to fundamental issues, "Begin means exactly what he says."
If this assessment is correct, the hope that Begin the hawk may be able to effect territorial compromises where more dovish prime ministers failed may be a forlorn hope as far as the occupied territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza are concerned.
Meanwhile, the immediate result of last night's decision will be that Likud will probably move swiftly to form a narrow-based coalition with the two right-wing religious parties - probably within the next two or three days.
According to political observers here, however, Likud may find it hard to keep the promises it has made to insure the support of the religious parties. Without additional political support flowing to Likud at some later date, some political observers doubt that such a narrow government can last a year.
It had been assumed by some that the need to work in tandem with coalition partners would modify some of the more hawkish views of Begin and Likud - especially pertaining to Likud's support of Jewish settlements in the heartland of Arab population in the West Bank and its position against giving up territory on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under any circumstances.
Without the comparatively dovish Democratic Movement in the goverment, there will be little internal political pressure on Begin to modify his stand. If anything, the religious parties are more hawkish than Likud's own liberal wing.
While Likud insists that it is committed to going to Geneva, one Israeli said recently: "Begin and the Likud may willingly be led to the waters of Lake Geneva, but that is not to say they can be made to drink." This was one of the concerns that influenced the Democratic Movement's decision not to join a Likud-led coalition.
There are mitigating factors to this gloomy assessment. It must be said, and opposition leader Shimon Peres recently confirmed, that virtually every major party in Israel with the exception of the Communists is opposed to withdrawal to 1967 borders, creation of a separate Palestinian state and negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
There were grave differences of opinion betwen the United States and Israel long before last month's election, which unexpectly ousted the ruling Labor Party, but they were swept under the rug largely because the Labor Party had little else to offer the electorate save success in foreign policy.
Not even the Democratic Movement would agree to 1967 borders or to any West Bank withdrawals for anything other than "real peace," the Israeli definition of which goes beyond anything the Arabs have yet offered. Thus the prospects for real progress at Geneva this year were never very bright anyway, as far as Israelis was concerned.
Now, however, Likud hopes that what it sees as a more honest approach to negotiations may "smoke out" the Arabs and force them to negotiate with Israel on a "realistic" basis.