However, there are good reasons to be disappointed, alarmed even, by the result. In the most important election in the short history of the Jewish state, the Israeli people have made a potentially disastrous choice. Despite the new premier's urbanity and experience of international affairs, his election represents a victory for obdurate political and religious forces - both Jewish and Arab - which he will be hard pressed to control. Worst of all, the result is a victory for political violence. It is a victory for the Israeli ultra-rightist, Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, a leader who probably would have succeeded this week where Shimon Peres failed. It is a victory for the fanatical Palestinian extremists who have bus-bombed the moderate Israeli voter into fearing the future.
But first, let us try to look on the bright side. Mr Netanyahu has a more workable mandate than if the vote had swung marginally to Mr Peres. The Likud leader won a clear victory among the Jewish population of Israel. If Mr Peres had shaded victory, he would have been accused by the right of being a minority Jewish premier, who needed Israeli-Arab votes to win. It would have been difficult for him to pursue the peace agenda of the 1993 Oslo accords.
Mr Netanyahu has never praised the Oslo deal but he has promised not to bury it. He is an experienced politician. He sees his country carved down the middle by Wednesday's election. His wiser supporters claim that he will seek to heal that divide, not to deepen it. There is an argument, deployed even by some Arab commentators, which says: "Nixon went to China; Begin went to Camp David. It is sometimes easier for hawks to make peace than doves."
We are not convinced. Mr Netanyahu is likely to be hemmed in, by politicians even less compromising than himself. The next phase of the peace process would be horribly difficult for any Israeli government: the exact security arrangements on the West Bank, the future of the Jewish settlements, the future of Jerusalem, the final status of the Palestinian state. Mr Netanyahu seems intent there should be no progress in any of these areas. He plans, if anything, to move backwards.
He has ruled out Palestinian statehood. He will not discuss Jerusalem. He will tear up the commitment not to create more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. He refuses even to meet Yasser Arafat. He is ready to send Israeli troops back into the areas ceded wholly to the control of Palestinian security forces. He will delay the hand-over over of Hebron, the West Bank's largest town. He will cut off any serious possibility of peace with Syria by refusing to discuss the return of the Golan Heights.
The Oslo deal has already fallen short of many Arab expectations. But it opens up the possibility of a gradual Arab assumption of economic and political power, culminating in a patchwork Palestinian state. This in turn opens up the possibility that two peoples whose destinies have intertwined for thousands of years could learn to live together as something like equals.
Mr Netanyahu explicitly rejects this. The more extreme reaches of his coalition regard all Arabs with undisguised contempt. Judging by even his most positive statements, Mr Netanyahu foresees the future of Gaza and the West Bank as a form of apartheid: the Palestinian areas would become bantustans, whose economy, security and relations with the outside world would be permanently controlled by Israel.
Life in Gaza and the West Bank remains irredeemably grim for most people. Mr Arafat retains control by a mixture of autocracy and hope. Stripped of any assurance that the process of peace and nation-building is moving forward Mr Arafat's position could become untenable. The logic of the Netanyahu position is to incubate the extremist violence he has pledged to fight. If there is another bus bombing in Israel, Mr Netanyahu is committed to re-invading the fledgling Arafat state to punish the wrong-doers. Mr Arafat would have to choose between fighting the Israeli invaders or losing all credibility. This is a standing invitation to Hamas to do its worst.
European governments should do what they can to persuade Mr Netanyahu to give peace a chance. But in reality only the United States can hope to make a difference and, by miserable mischance, the US is also in an election year. President Clinton has been happy to claim credit-by-association for Middle East peace. He did little of the heavy lifting to make it possible. Credit for that must go to the Bush administration, which was the first to use US financial support for the Jewish to push Israel towards a less confrontational approach.
A rapid disintegration of the Middle East peace could also be electorally damaging for Mr Clinton. He must use the weight of the US - including the financial weapon if needs be - to prevent direct assaults by the new Israeli government on the immense but fragile achievements of the Oslo accords. There must, at a minimum, be no new Israeli settlements on the West Bank and no armed Israeli incursions into Arafat-controlled territory.Reuse content