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It’s Bibi’s Israel Now

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu’s apparent re-election as prime minister of Israel attests to a starkly conservative vision of the Jewish state and its people about where they are and where they are headed.

They prize stability, as well as the military and economic security that Mr. Netanyahu has delivered.

Though in many ways they have never been safer, they remain afraid — especially of Iran and its influence over their neighbors, against which Mr. Netanyahu has relentlessly crusaded. They are persuaded by his portrayal of those who challenge him, whether Arab citizens or the left, as enemies of the state. They take his resemblance to authoritarian leaders around the world as evidence that he was ahead of the curve.

They credit Mr. Netanyahu, whose strategic vision values power and fortitude above all, with piloting Israel to unprecedented diplomatic heights and believe still more is possible. And they are loath to let anyone less experienced take the controls.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” said Michael B. Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “Our economy is excellent, our foreign relations were never better, and we’re secure. We’ve got a guy in politics for 40 years: We know him, the world knows him — even our enemies know him.”

Now, with a new term and an expanded Likud party, he has the chance to form an even larger right-wing coalition of secular, ultra-Orthodox and even some extremist lawmakers — or, if he chooses, to try to forge a national unity government that brings in centrists.

Construction in the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit last year. Mr. Netanyahu said during the campaign that he would begin applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the occupied West Bank. Credit Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Whatever he decides, though, Mr. Netanyahu has been afforded the opportunity to lead Israel through a serious turning point in its history as both a Jewish and a democratic state, if his legal troubles do not topple him first.

An election that was all about personality and character — whether Mr. Netanyahu’s likely indictment on corruption charges made him unfit to continue in the job, or whether his main challenger, the former army chief Benny Gantz, was up to it — left little room for issues of policy.

Through it all, Mr. Netanyahu proved once again that his talents, stamina and willingness to do what it takes to win are all unmatched in Israeli politics.

But serious concerns for Israel that were essentially set aside in the campaign are fast approaching. As he surpasses David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, as its longest-serving prime minister this summer, Mr. Netanyahu will be unable to ignore any of them for long.

Peace with the Palestinians remains as unlikely as ever, despite the possible wild card of a long-awaited proposal from the Trump administration. Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing allies, to whom he may be even more beholden under his next coalition, are champing at the bit to pursue annexation of the occupied West Bank.

In desperation to rally the pro-settler base, Mr. Netanyahu said publicly three days before the election that he would begin applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank that the Palestinians demand for their future state. Opponents believe this would set off a new Palestinian uprising, bring to fruition the apartheid regime the Israeli left has long warned against, or both.

Mr. Netanyahu with President Trump and other officials in March, as the United States recognized of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Even without annexation in the mix, Mr. Netanyahu’s settler- and ultra-Orthodox-dominated government, and his effusive embrace of President Trump, have rapidly alienated Israel from predominantly liberal and less-observant American Jews, the largest diaspora community and a pillar of Israel’s security since its founding.

Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the United States like never before, already forcing those seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 — including Bernie SandersPete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke — to distinguish their support for Israel from their disapproval of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies.

Finally, though it has received little notice outside Israel, a power struggle between the judiciary — one of the country’s last redoubts of assertive liberalism — and ascendant ethnonationalists has been building toward a showdown that could sharply alter the nature of Israeli democracy.

While conservatives have been working to curtail the Supreme Court’s power through legislation, the court itself has been laying the groundwork to assert judicial review over even the so-called basic laws that Parliament considers the building blocks of an eventual constitution, which Israel now lacks.

“Imagine the American Supreme Court judging the constitutionality of part of the Constitution itself,” said Gadi Taub, a historian and Hebrew University professor who opposes settlements and annexation but supports a rollback of judicial authority.

Mr. Netanyahu has not led the effort to rein in the Supreme Court, but he has railed against the legal system as a whole, over the long-running police corruption investigations that have led to his expected indictment on bribery and fraud charges.


Campaign posters in Rheovot, Israel. Mr. Netanyahu is on track to surpass David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, as its longest-serving prime minister. Credit Dan Balilty for The New York Times

That campaign, too, is expected to present a challenge for Israel’s democratic system: Mr. Netanyahu is now almost certain to try to extract a deal from his coalition partners to pass a law retroactively granting him immunity from prosecution.

Israelis have grown accustomed to Mr. Netanyahu’s bullish PowerPoint assessments of the country’s condition: 10 years of uninterrupted economic growth, its best-ever credit rating, and diplomatic openings and new trading partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America. During the campaign, they also got used to clips showing Mr. Trump granting recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, both coveted national goals.

Dorit Rabinyan, an author who calls herself left-wing, said Israelis feared Mr. Netanyahu’s exit as if they would be “orphaned.” And she confessed to having a tinge of the same feeling herself. “I’m anxious about it at the very same time that I’m hopeful about it,” she said.

Critics point to a yawning income gap between those prospering in Israel’s high-tech industry and those in the middle class or living outside the major cities. A housing crunch, overcrowded hospitals, clogged highways and a crushing cost of living are keeping many young adults in their parents’ homes and driving others to emigrate.

That gave Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents on the left and even the center-right ample ammunition.

“He’s provided short-term profits at a very high long-term price,” said Ari Shavit, a Jerusalem-born journalist who has followed Mr. Netanyahu throughout his career. “Netanyahu’s Israel is mortgaged. And we are going to pay dearly.”

Mr. Shavit said the same could be said for Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to use Israel’s position of strength and strategic comfort — “this golden moment” — to take on its single most existential issue, the Palestinian conflict; and for his exploitation of Mr. Trump’s largess at the cost of “endangering the relationship with Democratic America, younger America and the next administration in Washington.”

Mr. Taub said he expected Mr. Netanyahu to continue his decade-long practice of slow-walking settlement expansion, as the right complains, and sabotaging peace talks, as the left complains.

“Gantz, with his high talk of values, optimism, change, sounded like Obama in 2008,” Mr. Taub said. “But no one in Israel thinks there’s really an option to annex the West Bank or make peace. So it will be the triumph of the status quo.”

But Mr. Oren said he believed that a Trump peace plan was forthcoming, and that Mr. Netanyahu was best suited to reach a deal, at last, no matter how much his coalition partners fought it.

“It’s the old adage: The left makes war, the right makes peace,” Mr. Oren said. “Netanyahu will be extremely loath to say no to Trump, which could prove to be the success of that program.”

On the West Bank, however, few share that view.

Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Bir Zeit University and former spokesman for the Palestinian government, said Mr. Netanyahu’s long tenure had already left behind two devastating casualties: any hope for a two-state solution and any support for moderate Palestinian leadership, whose investment in a diplomatic solution to the conflict Mr. Netanyahu has discredited.

Mr. Khatib said that Mr. Netanyahu, by politically empowering the extreme right wing in recent years, had contributed to a radicalization that has made Israelis averse to peacemaking. “The Israel that we talk about now is not the Israel we negotiated with 25 years ago,” he said. “I think that Netanyahu’s taking us into some kind of apartheid reality.”

It is precisely because Mr. Netanyahu has been so successful that some on the left argue that his leadership is undermining Israeli’s seemingly irrepressible democracy.

Anshel Pfeffer, the author of “Bibi,” a critical biography of Mr. Netanyahu, said he believed that by campaigning as the “indispensable man,” Mr. Netanyahu had “created a narrative where it’s illegitimate or irresponsible to replace him.”

“There’s a certain justification for that,” Mr. Pfeffer said.

“The left wing always said, ‘Here’s the deal: If you don’t solve your issues with the Palestinians and end the occupation, and resolve your outstanding issues with Arab countries, you won’t realize your incredible potential,’ ” he said. “You’ll have a spartan lifestyle, you’ll have to go to war all the time, and the world may isolate you — the diplomatic tsunami. And it’s inarguable that in the last 10 years, Netanyahu has broken this paradigm.”

Yet, at the same time, Mr. Netanyahu has fueled and directed the right wing’s animosity at predominantly liberal institutions like the courts, the police, higher education and the news media. To the left, Israeli democracy is on the defensive. To the ethnonationalist right, which succeeded last year in enshrining Israel’s self-definition as the nation-state of the Jews in a basic law, it is in need of an adjustment.

“Somebody told me that Israel went really far on the democracy side, and now we have to rebalance it,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a liberal pollster and writer. “They see it as a corrective, that Israel has too healthy a democracy.”

Some, including Mr. Gantz, have warned that Mr. Netanyahu was headed down a path toward a regime like that of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

Mr. Pfeffer said Israel was not there yet.

“Those other countries don’t have the institutions that can indict the prime minister,” he said. “It hasn’t happened here; the media and judiciary are still strong. But once you erode democracy, you make it much easier for the incumbent to win.”