Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with his wife Sara as he speaks to the media, after voting in Israel's parliamentary elections in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Mar. 17, 2015.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with his wife Sara as he speaks to the media, after voting in Israel's parliamentary elections in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Mar. 17, 2015. Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The Fine Line Netanyahu Must Walk Into His Fourth Term as Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu earned his fourth term as Israel's prime minister in part by doing whatever it takes to keep his job, including renouncing his own positions.

The chairman of Israel's Central Election Committee, Salim Joubran, a judge on the country's Supreme Court, is an Arab Israeli. In other words, the man who just supervised the Jewish state's latest election (and who also, by the way, sent a former Israeli president to jail), is not Jewish. This, of course, is a good thing. Arab Israelis (or Palestinian-Israelis, as many prefer to be called), suffer from various forms of discrimination as a minority group, but they have the franchise (17 members, out of 120, of the next Knesset will be Arab), and they are playing increasingly important roles in the law, academia, science, and in medicine (it's become a bit of an inverted Jewish joke that so many Jewish Israelis go to Arab doctors).

Israel should be proud that, in a disintegrating and brutal Middle East, it has managed to maintain its democratic traditions (in Israel proper, not in the West Bank, of course) and that it treats minorities in ways that minorities in much of the rest of the Middle East can only dream of being treated.

The now-and-apparently-forever prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ought to be proud of his country's record of enfranchisement. He should be happy that Arabs vote in large numbers, just as Jews vote in large numbers. But Netanyahu was not happy yesterday when he saw Arabs heading to the polls. He said, in a message distributed on social media and meant for his base, "Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations."

It is often said (by me, among others) that Netanyahu would do very well as a Republican candidate for governor or senator in America. In the past, I imagined him fitting in with the fiscally conservative, rhetorically responsible, socially tolerant, foreign-policy hawkish wing of the party. What I didn't fully understand was just how much of Lee Atwater he had in him. Atwater, you'll remember, was the South Carolina Republican operative who was one of the prime innovators of racial dog-whistling, an approach used by a good number of Republicans to instill fear in white voters.

Netanyahu, of course, wasn't dog-whistling here: He didn't refer, say, to "people in Israel's north who don't have Jewish interests at heart," or some other such variation (Paul Ryan's "urban" voter formulation from 2012 comes to mind). Instead, he screamed, 'The Arabs are coming!"

What is doubly cynical about this is that the Arab vote was not actually Netanyahu's main concern. Whether the Joint List—the combined Arab party— gained 14 seats in the Knesset, or 16, was not what was worrying Netanyahu. He won this election by consolidating support for his Likud party at the expense of other right-wing parties. Arab voters had nothing to do with that, except as props in his campaign of scaremongering.

As I wrote yesterday, the most consequential of Netanyahu's last-minute statements concerned his renunciation of support for the two-state solution. This about-face will cause long-lasting, and negative, political and diplomatic repercussions. But his decision to talk about Arab citizens of Israel in the manner in which he did could divide Israeli society in calamitous ways.

I suppose he could try to walk all of this back. I'm not sure, at this point, who would believe him.

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