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May 26, 2017

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For Israel, security overshadows widespread social inequity

SINGAPORE -- Israeli incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a significant voter backlash against rightist extremism in last week's parliamentary election. However, suggestions the rebuff may moderate his unyielding stance on Palestine and Iran may be misplaced. What is clear, from the direction his coalition-building has taken after the deadlocked election, is that Israel's security is his sole preoccupation. Most Israelis would approve of this existential necessity, and his artful playing up of presumed Israeli vulnerabilities has been the reason he has lasted this long in the country's turbulent politics.

The world should therefore expect no let-up in the settlement-building on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Also regrettable is the receding possibility of a two-state solution. An Israeli willingness to accommodate the aspirations of the Palestinian Authority remains the fondest wish of the fair-minded, who would have the Jewish people remember their own struggle for a homeland.

In the case of Iran, American ambivalence about the military option to impede Teheran's nuclearization has not deterred Netanyahu from talking up war. Even with a re-elected President Barack Obama largely free of the Israel lobby's hold on him, Netanyahu and his acolytes have continued to promote the belief that the United States would endorse an attack plan, regardless of what diplomacy is seeking to accomplish.

But Netanyahu will not have everything his way even though he is assured of heading a fairly stable coalition. The second-placed party in the poll, the centrist Yesh Atid, stole the thunder from the governing Likud-Beiteinu alliance with its campaign focus on social justice — a rare departure in the country's heavily security-focused politics.

Yes, the war-hardened Israelis have existential concerns other than the country reinforcing its border buffer against incursions and possible minority status. They want affordable housing and health care, better jobs and relief from living costs which rival Europe's. The people's angst culminated in mass protests in 2011 demanding government action on the middle-class squeeze and spreading poverty among low-income earners.

It is too much to expect a rabidly anti-compromise prime minister to ease up on hostile talk. But he will find it instructive to consider one fact: Israel has the second-highest rate of poverty among developed nations.

A quarter of the 8 million population lives on subsistence wages in a nation where the 20 richest families control half of the listed companies. Such inequity counsels intervention. This was the subtext of the election, which a national leader ignores at his peril.

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