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Bibi's costly victory

Tuesday's elections in Israel saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu score a decisive victory that puts him in position to lead his country for another four years, but it came at the cost of a deeply divided society, a badly frayed relationship with the U.S. and growing international isolation. If Israelis ultimately turned to Mr. Netanyahu out of sense that he was only leader who could ensure their nation's security in a dangerous world, he may have won the battle but lost the war.

The election campaign was dominated by the prime minister's brazen demonization of his critics, his insulting treatment of an American president and, yes, his outright racist appeals to supporters in warning that Israeli Arabs were actually voting in their country's elections — something they have a perfect right to do. Rather than try to unify the country behind him, Mr. Netanyahu cynically played on its religious, ethnic and class divisions. And he shamelessly ginned up a last-minute surge among supporters on the right by announcing he would never agree to the creation of a Palestinian state, thereby reversing the position held by the last three Israeli prime ministers, including himself.

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Given the U.S. and European view that a two-state solution is the only viable path to long-term peace in the region, it's hard to see how Israel can now have a productive relationship with the world. Mr. Netanyahu's supporters are quick to dismiss such concerns, saying that in the heat of an election politicians utter all sorts of statements they don't really intend to follow once they're in office. But Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly torpedoed U.S.-sponsored peace talks in the past, most recently last year's failed effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Netanyahu opportunistically took advantage of the campaign to appeal to a wide swath of Israeli society that has given up on a two-state solution; if he does change course again, it will be hard to for U.S. officials — and even harder for Israelis — to trust a man who has just tacitly admitted that he's been lying to them all along.

Despite pre-election and exit polls showing Mr. Netanyahu running even with or even slightly behind his main rival, the center-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog, the prime minister's scorched-earth campaign tactics allowed him to end up winning easily after all the votes were counted. But that doesn't necessarily give him a mandate. Under Israel's complicated multiparty parliamentary system, it takes 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to govern. Even if Mr. Netanyahu succeeds in cobbling together a ruling coalition out of the fractious collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and religious parties that make up his Likud bloc's natural allies, it's unclear how stable such a coalition would be or how long it would last.

It's possible that if all else fails Mr. Netanyahu eventually could be forced to form a unity government with Zionist Union in which he and Mr. Herzog agree to share power. Both the prime minister and Mr. Herzog have ruled out such an arrangement on principle, but politics has made stranger bedfellows. A government dominated by Likud and Zionist Union could speak credibly to both the security issues and the pocketbook concerns of ordinary Israelis without risking a collapse over the defection of one or more of the smaller parties. It could also serve to rein in some of Mr. Netanyahu's more bellicose attitudes toward the Palestinians. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Demagoguery may have saved Mr. Netanyahu's political neck this time, but it has come at a steep price. Israelis were already dissatisfied with the state of the economy as reflected by sky-high housing costs and the growing economic inequality between rich and poor. They are also alarmed by the rift that has developed between Israel and the U.S., its strongest international backer. The split has grown wider after Mr. Netanyahu's speech to Congress last month, in defiance of President Obama's wishes, that seemed to align Israeli security policy with the Republican political agenda. Many Israelis are deeply uncomfortable with Mr. Netanyahu's move to make support for Israel a partisan issue in the U.S., which potentially poses a greater danger to the nation than anything else, and whose consequences could be felt for years to come.

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