While the Middle East can be precisely mapped in terms of terrain and borders, the tensions and nuances that underlie everyday existence may not be so easily drawn.

It has been six weeks since the Israeli elections and the inconclusive results: Likud's right-wing party won 40 seats while the left-of-center Labor Party garnered 39. But a majority coalition needed to form the government remains elusively out of reach.Like a picture that refuses to focus, a political resolution shifts and fluctuates between the two major parties and the surprising 18 Knesset seats picked up by religious parties.

During meetings with American journalists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israeli officials from both ends of the political spectrum discussed the election and ensuing stalemate.

Tov Ben-Meir, the departing deputy speaker of the Knesset, described the problems facing Israel with the emergence of religious parties as a political force. "There is an inner social revolution going on," Ben-Meir said. "The radicalization of religious parties means when we speak in the name of God, we can't have any negotiations."

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, head of Likud, was asked immediately following the elections to form a government. His initial discussions with the religious parties came with a high price tag: In return for their support, legislation regarding "Who is a Jew" would be introduced in the Knesset. Conversions to Judaism by Reform or Conservative rabbis would not be recognized for applicants desiring Israeli citizenship, and they would have to undergo an Orthodox reconversion.

The proposed legislation would affect only a dozen people a year who immigrate to Israel, but the 90 percent of American Jews who do not affiliate with the Orthodox movement feel disenfranchised by the legislation.

The firestorm of protest from American Jews over the issue may have been part of the reason Shamir backed away from discussions with the rabbis and approached the Labor Party about continuation of the uneasy Labor-Likud coalition of the past four years.

But Shimon Peres was overruled by members of his party and Labor withdrew from negotiations. Novik Nimrod, policy adviser to Peres, was interviewed just hours before Labor announced its withdrawal. "If Labor goes out - my choice and what I've recommended to Peres - I will be in the forefront in criticizing government if it doesn't pursue a peace process," Novik said.

Labor is opposed to the "Who is a Jew" movement, according to Novik, who does not want to be a party to the legislation. "Likud has a commitment to the religious parties signed and sealed," Novik said. "At this moment, a group of elderly rabbis meeting somewhere in Tel Aviv may decide the next Prime Minister of Israel - a bizarre thought."

Shamir seemed irritated at the ire roused by the "Who is a Jew" issue. "For us it is a simple administrative problem," he said. "Here in our country there is one religious authority: the chief rabbinate. In the United States you have various religious streams. We do not have any intention to involve ourselves between the various streams - on the contrary, we'd like to have unity, Jewish unity."

The resolution of the Palestinian question seems bogged down between the land-for-peace Labor position and Likud's refusal of territorial concessions or negotiations with the PLO. Shamir said, "We will negotiate with any Arab country that will be ready to do it and with representatives of the Palestinian Arab population that do not represent the PLO.

"We reject the PLO not only as legitimate representative of the Palestinian population, we reject them as terrorists, as people not interested in peace with us, as people who want to eliminate our nation," Shamir said. "It's true that to find legitimate representatives of such a people is not easy."

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said of the intifada, "Running away from stones will lead to more violence so violence will be met with force." Labor's Novik suggested otherwise. "I don't believe for a moment you can bring an end to the intifada by military means alone. Unless the people see a ray of hope for a political solution there will be no end." And that, perhaps, is the biggest challenge Israel has ever faced.