Benjamin Netanyahu is celebrating his political comeback, even if it is less triumphant than polls in Israel had predicted before Tuesday's general election. Ten years ago he was ousted as prime minister, and three years ago he returned by a slim margin as leader of the opposition Likud Party. On Tuesday, Likud won almost one-quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. That counts as a triumph in the context of Israel's splintered party politics.
Now Netanyahu -- or "Bibi," as friends and enemies alike call him, faces an even bigger challenge: He has to decide which is more important -- his nation or his career.
A lurch to the right in Israel has put more than half of the Knesset in the hands of conservatives and ultra-conservatives, so a coalition made up of Likud, settler parties and ultra-orthodox parties is possible. The Israel Beitenu party led by the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, which advocates the exclusion of the nearly 1 million Arabs living in Israel, is now the third most powerful force in the Knesset, ahead of the better-established, left-leaning Labor Party. Lieberman wants to force all Israelis, including its large domestic Arab population, to sign a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state or lose Israeli citizenship.
The politician who manages to unite a majority of Knesset members into a new coalition will become the next prime minister. Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu's campaign rival, won a slim majority on Tuesday and has already invited Likud to participate in a centrist unity government -- with her at the top. She would then become Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meier left office in 1974.
Netanyahu says he wants no part in a unity government. Or at least he made proud noises against the idea after the polls closed Tuesday night. "With God's help," he told cheering supporters in Tel Aviv, "I will lead the next government. The national camp, led by Likud, has won a clear advantage."
Mathematically, he's right. But it would be the end of the peace process. Israel's right-leaning parties are against the establishment of a Palestinian state, against giving up settlements in the West Bank and against returning the Golan Heights to Syria -- all of which are vital points in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Still, Netanyahu can hardly afford to steer his policies using such simple arithmetic. He has other variables to think about, such as Israel's relationship with the United States. Netanyahu knows good relations with Washington will falter without a peace process. President Barack Obama has called for "aggressive" new talks, and Bill Clinton showed that the US would not always write a blank check to Israel. During his term, Clinton threatened to reduce the billions of dollars in support Washington sends to Jerusalem every year.
During his own time in office between 1996 and 1999, Netanyahu showed a pragmatic understanding of the difference between rhetoric and negotiation. By the end of his term, he had met with then-PLO leader Yassir Arafat and signed an agreement handing part of Hebron, a holy city in the West Bank, over to autonomous Palestinian control.
During the last few weeks of campaigning, Netanyahu avoided staking hard positions on most controversial issues -- except for the Jerusalem question, on which he seems unwilling to compromise. But, unlike members of Likud's right wing, he's made no explicit remarks against a Palestinian state, and he's done everything in his power to push Moshe Feiglin, an ultra-right leader of the settlers' movement, into a marginal role. In fact, he's supported centrists within Likud, like former Justice Minister Dan Meridor. In the battle for Israel's political center, his main opponent is really Tzipi Livni.
Since Livni can claim a stronger mandate from the general election, Netanyahu now has to show whether he has the stuff to be a real statesman. A broad centrist coalition consisting of Kadima, Likud and Labor would be the only stable alternative to a right-wing Israeli government.
Israel has voted. Now it's up to Bibi to decide.