The problem with Israel's turn to the right

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went into the recent parliamentary elections with a sharp turn to the right that yielded the results he sought. The electorate stayed the course with him and his Likud party, contrary to expectations that Israelis might prefer a new and less muscular way of dealing with their problems. New challenges for Israel might lie in its choice of this direction, unless Mr Netanyahu moderates both his goals and his road map for them.

The issue of Palestine goes to the heart of Israeli politics. Mr Netanyahu's declaration, that a Palestinian state would not be formed under his watch, was powerful enough apparently to resonate with voters. This was so in spite of the belief that a two-state solution would not only be fair to Palestinians but also conducive to the long-term security of Israel itself.

It was bad enough that he had pushed for the construction of controversial Jewish settlements despite stiff international opposition. But Mr Netanyahu's rant against Israeli Arabs for voting in "droves" was seen as a tactic bordering on racism to draw in the countervailing votes of Israeli Jews. In reality, Arab citizens of Israel were celebrating the participatory possibilities of their nation's democracy. To transform the electoral presence of the minority into a putative threat to the majority denigrated the domain of politics common to both.

Mr Netanyahu has distanced himself from his comments on Palestine and Israeli Arabs. However, it remains to be seen whether he is contrite or it is merely expedient. Either way, the imperatives of coalition politics, in which Likud needs to engage in order to govern, could temper his plans. Yet, given the force of his personality, which seems to have imprinted itself on the Israeli political psyche, there is a danger that his reading of national security might obscure the larger good in arriving at rapprochement with Palestinians.

He would not be alone in such historic efforts. The international community needs in Israel, as it does in Palestine, leaders who can be trusted to be sincere about their ultimate, strategic desire for peace, no matter how difficult the immediate tactical steps may be. In this context, there is a danger that Israel might find itself isolated internationally if Mr Netanyahu persists with the intransigent attitudes that a divisive election revealed.

The Palestinian issue is an international one, not only a bilateral dispute between Israel and Palestinians. It involves Arab states, to say nothing of the United States, whose partnership with Israel is a bedrock of regional stability.

With the elections over, a victorious Mr Netanyahu should ponder how to move back to the political centre.