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Opinion | If Netanyahu Goes, Israel’s New Prime Minister Faces a Big Mess

Israel’s democratic erosion has involved numerous aspects, including the passage of undemocratic legislation such as the nation-state law, a law legitimizing de facto housing discrimination, as well as a law to curtail public calls for boycott and one restricting free speech. Even the right-wing parties in the new government can, and must, refrain from this type of legislation. Ending incitement against Palestinian citizens in Israel, such as Mr. Netanyahu’s 2019 accusations that Arab Knesset members are terror supporters who want to destroy Israel, would be one step toward healing democracy.

More complex for this government will be defending democratic checks and balances, particularly the independence of the Israeli judiciary. The farthest-right coalition leaders — mainly Ms. Shaked and Mr. Bennett — have made attacks on the Israeli judiciary central to their political mission in recent years. Gideon Saar, now slated to be justice minister, has demanded judicial reforms in line with their views.

But Israel’s democracy is ailing not because the judiciary has overstepped its bounds, as the right wing argues. The problem with Israeli democracy is its refusal to define what Israel is: a theocracy, an aspiring democracy or an occupying power. All of which means nothing can be clarified if the government fails to address a third core issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s identity and democracy have been ambiguous since the birth of the state. But from 1967, the fog of Israel’s intentions regarding the occupied Palestinian territories became a scourge.

Gershom Gorenberg’s classic book “The Accidental Empire” documents Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s striking ambiguity about how much he would tolerate, or support, the settlement project at first. (He eventually did.) The country developed a long tradition of obfuscating its ultimate aim for the fate of those territories. Mr. Netanyahu was no different; in 2009 he announced support for a muddled vision for two states, then worked for years against such a solution, ultimately campaigning for West Bank annexation from 2019 to 2020, only to drop the plan when it no longer served him politically. Meanwhile the occupation deepens, Palestinian independence disintegrates, and the consequences accelerate: In March, the International Criminal Court announced it would be investigating Israel and Palestinian militant groups for possible war crimes; foreign and domestic human rights groups have charged the country with apartheid. A fresh conflict exploded just weeks ago, sparking shocking ethnic violence among Israel’s own citizens.

Neither of the first two aims — ending illiberal nationalism, nor strengthening democracy — can happen without a vision of how to end occupation. And there are only two real routes.

One option is to revive the commitment toward a two-state solution — preferably in the updated, more humane form of a two-state confederation based on open borders and cooperation rather than hard ethnic partition. The other is to acknowledge the reality of permanent Israeli control and begin handing out full rights to all people under Israel’s control, equally, by law.

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