HAVING CALLED an early election in an attempt to strengthen his authority, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has, in the end, crippled himself. The right-wing coalition due to take office this week will have a majority of just one vote in the parliament — meaning that any one of the 61 fractious members of the five-party coalition can bring it down at any time. While the veteran prime minister said Monday that he would try to add to his bloc, he has been publically rebuffed by the leader of the left-wing Labor Party, who says he’s not up for “saving Netanyahu from the hole he has dug for himself.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s enemies, including those at the White House, have little reason to celebrate this situation. The cabinet that takes office will be among the most illiberal in the country’s history, including ministers who hope to strip power from Israel’s supreme court — which has been an effective check on government excesses — and to weaken independent human rights groups and other critics. Mr. Netanyahu probably will face demands to give up his relative restraint in expanding West Bank settlements, which limited most construction in recent years to areas Israel expects to annex in a peace settlement.
While the coalition lasts, there will be next to no chance of resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. That doesn’t much change the previous status quo: Six years of futile efforts by the Obama administration have shown that neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to make the compromises necessary for Palestinian statehood. Mr. Abbas, however, can be expected to press for action by the United Nations, including for a Security Council resolution setting the terms for an independent Palestine. That, in turn, will require President Obama to decide whether to continue shielding Israel from such action or — as the president hinted following Mr. Netanyahu’s election victory — to support it, in what would be a momentous change in U.S. policy.
As it is, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu will continue to joust over the Iranian nuclear accord. The Israeli leader calls it “a bad deal” but probably cannot stop it if it is completed by June. Since Mr. Netanyahu is passionately committed to his position on Iran, he should do his part to prevent a rupture in the U.S.-Israel alliance on other grounds. That means resisting pressure from his coalition to expand settlement construction and taking steps to preserve the long-term viability of a two-state solution. It could also include removing controls on the Palestinian economy and allowing Palestinian expansion into West Bank areas now controlled by Israel.
Despite exhibiting an animus for Mr. Netanyahu exceeding that directed at most U.S. adversaries, Mr. Obama has, at least, pledged himself to maintaining U.S. military and intelligence cooperation with Israel. The president no doubt hopes that the new Israeli coalition will soon unravel and Mr. Netanyahu will be forced into new elections or far-reaching concessions to the Labor Party. He shouldn’t count on it: The prime minister begins his fourth term as one of the most durable leaders in Israel’s history. Mr. Obama’s wisest course would be to avoid exacerbating his conflict with Mr. Netanyahu while both remain in office.