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Opinion | Israel election results in troubling turn toward illiberal democracy

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Objectively speaking, Israel might be stronger than ever before in its 74-year history. Its military is all but unchallengeable by other Middle Eastern countries. Arab countries increasingly either recognize it diplomatically or deal with it as if they did. Even Lebanon, whose government is under the influence of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah party, has made an agreement with Israel over offshore natural gas drilling rights. At home, the country’s tech-driven economy generated per capita output of $51,000 last year — the 25th-highest globally, according to the World Bank.

And yet, in national elections this week, many Israelis voted as if none of this were true. Taking counsel of their insecurities, they handed a parliamentary majority to parties aligned with right-wing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which campaigned as Israelis’ best protectors against Palestinian violence and Iran’s nuclear program.

The defeat of centrist Yair Lapid’s coalition, which ranged from anti-Netanyahu conservatives to Islamist Israeli Arabs, can only trouble Israel’s friends abroad, including the United States. This is true not only because it all but certainly spells the end of an already improbable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Mr. Lapid had backed, at least in principle. It is also true because of Mr. Netanyahu’s record. In his previous terms, Mr. Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges and played on internal U.S. partisan divisions, undercutting President Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and cozying up to President Donald Trump. (To his credit, Mr. Netanyahu quickly congratulated Joe Biden on his 2020 victory, annoying Mr. Trump.)

The greatest concern, though, is the likely inclusion in Mr. Netanyahu’s parliamentary majority of ultra-right-wing politicians. Some, such as the Jewish Power party’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, have roots in Kach, the now-defunct anti-Arab party founded by Meir Kahane, a political figure so virulently extreme that Israel banned the party and the U.S. State Department labeled it (until earlier this year) a terrorist organization. In 2007, an Israeli court found Mr. Ben-Gvir guilty of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism. Yet today, he and Bezalel Smotrich, a religious extremist notorious for his homophobic statements, control a political bloc that is on course to supply 14 of a 64-seat majority for Mr. Netanyahu in the 120-seat parliament.

Granted, that majority is magnified by Israel’s quirky electoral system, not reflective of the 4.7 million votes cast, which were split almost precisely evenly between pro- and anti-Netanyahu parties. The alliance between Mr. Ben-Gvir and Mr. Smotrich enjoyed the support of only 10.8 percent. But for divisions within, and tactical errors by, the Israeli left, the election might have ended differently. Rocket attacks and other violent provocations by Iranian-backed forces such as Islamic Jihad in Gaza also played into the hands of Mr. Netanyahu and the ultra-right.

There is a slim chance that the apparent right-wing coalition — like others in the past — will fall apart. Though it’s also highly unlikely, Mr. Netanyahu might yet break his campaign pledge never to form a coalition with the National Unity party, one of Mr. Lapid’s erstwhile conservative coalition partners, which won 12 seats in the election, instead of the ultra-right.

Nevertheless, the sobering reality is that Mr. Ben-Gvir has been mainstreamed. And, after a four-year stalemate in Israeli politics that included five general elections, Mr. Netanyahu, 73, has won a seemingly durable return to the job he previously held for a combined 15 years. He did so not by resisting illiberal trends in Israeli society but by manipulating them — in part because he calculated that far-right politicians could help him get the corruption case against him dismissed. The price of Mr. Ben-Gvir’s and Mr. Smotrich’s support might be control over key ministries, including the one that directs the Israeli police, which Mr. Ben-Gvir has said he wants for himself.

For the Biden administration, the rise of such figures in a major U.S. ally raises dilemmas. While appropriately reserving judgment until the actual formation of the new Israeli government, the State Department’s spokesman, Ned Price, referred to both the “shared interests” and the “shared values” upon which the U.S.-Israeli relationship rests, expressing the hope that “all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.” This obvious allusion to Mr. Ben-Gvir laid down an important marker for Mr. Netanyahu; nor should the administration rule out a U.S. diplomatic boycott of Mr. Ben-Gvir if he joins the cabinet.

No matter how repugnant the rhetoric of Mr. Netanyahu’s new allies, they — and he — should be judged on what they do with the power Israeli voters conferred upon them. Soon enough, the once and future prime minister’s actions will show the priority he places on not only Israel’s democratic traditions but also its decades-long relationship with the United States.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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