BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, who has been Israel’s dominant leader for the past decade, suffered a crippling and perhaps politically mortal blow in Tuesday’s elections — and for all the right reasons. Having conducted a vile campaign directed at Israel’s Arab minority, Mr. Netanyahu saw his Likud party lose hundreds of thousands of votes and a critical handful of parliamentary seats, compared with the previous election in April — while Arab parties increased their representation by 30 percent. Following wild promises by Mr. Netanyahu to annex large parts of the West Bank, the first-place finisher in the preliminary vote count was the centrist Blue and White party, which opposes annexation or other steps that would preclude the creation of a Palestinian state.
The election left neither major party with a clear path to a parliamentary majority, and in the scrum of post-election maneuvering, Mr. Netanyahu might yet find a way to stay on as prime minister. But if Israel’s other parties stick to their campaign positions, a leader who has polarized his country and damaged Israel’s standing in the United States could finally be forced from office — or, at least, prevented from following through on his most extreme promises.
At the center of the post-election horse-trading will be Avigdor Lieberman, a former disciple of Mr. Netanyahu who leads a secular right-wing party that controls the swing votes in the Knesset. Mr. Lieberman, who forced the election by refusing to join with Mr. Netanyahu following the April vote, is saying he will support only a “unity” government joining the Likud and Blue and White parties and excluding the religious and far-right factions Mr. Netanyahu has been allied with. For his part, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, a former general, has said his party will not participate in a coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu.
Whether those politicians stick to their vows, they will likely resist any effort by Mr. Netanyahu to protect himself through legislation from a looming indictment on corruption charges, which could come within weeks. That could force him from office even if his Likud party does not move to replace him. A centrist government could also block Likud’s attempt to strip power from Israel’s Supreme Court and curtail a crackdown on human rights groups.
President Trump might be sorry to see Mr. Netanyahu ousted or constrained. The Israeli leader has been perhaps his most faithful foreign follower, and one who shared his antipathy toward the media and other democratic institutions. But Israel’s relations with the United States might be improved by a new prime minister. Mr. Netanyahu, who increasingly aligned himself with the Republican Party, has done much to polarize Americans’ view of Israel. Support for the Jewish state among Democrats has plummeted, according to polls.
An Israeli government that recommitted itself to liberal norms could begin to reverse that damage. A centrist coalition would also be more open to the Israeli-Palestinian peace Mr. Trump says he wants to broker. No breakthrough can be expected anytime soon. But at best, Israel’s election could arrest what has been a dangerous slide toward a self-defeating nationalism.
Jackson Diehl: If Netanyahu wins Israel’s election, the Mideast doomsayers may finally be proved right