Israel remains deeply divided on how best to secure peace and security.

Consequently, it will be hard for the U.S. to mount any new peace initiatives in the Middle East until at least after a new American president takes office next January.That much seems clear from this week's Israeli national elections that saw impressive gains by four small religious parties and a virtual deadlock between the two main parties, the right-wing Likud bloc and the center-left Labor alignment.

The near-deadlock gives the religious parties - which made their best electoral showing in 40 years - leverage to extract concessions in negotiations to form a new coalition government.

Philosophically and politically, the four small parties are closer to Likud than Labor. But their votes are negotiable. The bargaining to form a new cabinet could take from three weeks to three months. Until a new coalition is formed, Israel will continue to be governed by the present awkward coalition between Likud and Labor.

In any event, this was the first of Israel's 12 national elections that centered almost exclusively around an internal security threat. For almost 11 months, a fast-growing, defiant Palestinian population of 1.7 million has been struggling to break out of Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

After a continuing barrage of rock-throwing, underground leaflets, teargas, and bullets that has left at least 300 Palestinians and seven Israelis dead, the electorate split almost evenly on what to do about it.

Slightly less than half favored the U.S.-sponsored plans of Labor's Shimon Peres calling for an international conference as an umbrella for direct Arab-Israeli negotiations in which land would be traded for peace. Slightly more than half backed the plans of Likud's Yitzhak Shamir to unshackle the army so it can "deter the rioters."

Though Shamir has taken the tougher stance toward the Arabs, it would be a mistake to rule out the possibility that he might become more flexible once he heads his own government instead of sharing power with Peres and Labor in the existing arrangement.

Meanwhile, about all the U.S. can do is to watch and wait while Israel works through the difficult process of forming a new government. But it might not be out of order for Washington to remind Israel that the longer this process takes, the greater is the risk of more misunderstanding, tension, and violence in the Middle East.