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Benjamin Netanyahu stooped low to come out on top

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Dec. 3, 2014. Credit: AP / Sebastian Scheiner

Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu reminded the world that even a good leader can sometimes do a bad thing.  And when you're the prime minister of Israel, one of the worst things you can ever do is play the "Arab card."

Watching elected officials promote division is never easy. But, in this case, the process was heart-wrenching for those of us who believe that Netanyahu is the right person to lead Israel.

He certainly knows how to pull off an upset. Even though Israel has plenty of domestic challenges -- economic inequality, ethnic divisions, political tension -- a majority of its voters seem to have put security first by re-electing Netanyahu and his Likud Party. For all his shortcomings, Netanyahu seems like he spends every waking hour thinking about the threats to Israel and how to thwart them. Some of those threats are coming from Iran, which Netanyahu and many others believe cannot be trusted and will never relent in its quest for a nuclear weapon.

In politics, commitment counts for a lot. And Netanyahu is so dedicated to keeping Israel safe that he is willing to stand up to his country's most important ally: the United States.

Even so, how a politician conducts himself also counts for a lot. And the circumstances surrounding Netanyahu's victory give new meaning to the phrase "winning ugly."

Just how ugly did it get? Well, the Israeli prime minister may have been in the Middle East, but the pro-security leader sounded like he was running for re-election as an anti-immigrant Republican in the American Southwest.

You may recall that, in states such as Arizona and New Mexico, the GOP routinely scares up votes by convincing people who are already terrified of changing demographics that they should also be worried about illegal immigrants making an organized grab for political power by committing voter fraud.

Like most of what comes from the nativist right wing, this is nonsense. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud orchestrated by illegal immigrants. Does anyone seriously believe that, after spending thousands of dollars on smugglers and putting their lives in danger to enter the United States, the first thing that the undocumented are going to do is risk detention by strutting down to the polling place?

No matter. The accusation that illegal immigrants are voting en masse for Democrats has been effective. So the GOP keeps repeating it. In doing so, Republicans don't seem to care that they are angering and alienating Latino voters.

Just as Israeli Arabs are angry, and likely to be further alienated, by Netanyahu's election-day warning that leftist organizations were busing people to the polls and that "Arab voters are coming out in droves."

Netanyahu's campaign may have started out focused on security, but it ended on a note of racism, demagoguery and fear. In the United States, some conservatives have long compared the Israeli leader to Winston Churchill. When it comes to Iran, the comparison rings true. But when he sowed ethnic division in order to scare up political support, Netanyahu sounded more like he was channeling Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. That's quite a drop.

This isn't over. Ultimately, in an unprecedented development, an electoral coalition that included political parties representing Israel's Arab minority gained 13 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to become -- after Likud and the left-wing Zionist Union -- the third largest political force in Israel. They might not have the votes to effect major change, but they will likely make their voices heard and their demands clear.

Israel has enough challenges, foreign and domestic, without opening up old wounds and further dividing its population. So if he wants to govern effectively, Netanyahu needs to show some contrition and make amends with his country's Arab community.

This may have already gotten through. On election night, Netanyahu promised to help put together "a strong and stable government that will be able to take care of the security, safety and welfare of each and every citizen of Israel."

Did you catch that last part? "Each and every citizen." Netanyahu knows full well what he did. Now he has to do whatever he can to undo it.
Ruben Navarrette's email address is