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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. Reuters

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. Reuters

REUTERS

Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu

AFP/Getty Images

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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu basked in the adoration of thousands of supporters as he mounted the stage in Tel Aviv. The rapturous crowd at a pre-dawn victory rally hailed his vote-winning skills by chanting: "You're a magician!"

After sweeping back to office in defiance of every forecast, Mr Netanyahu does indeed seem like an electoral wizard.

After nine years in power, he will lead a new coalition that will give him a shot at beating David Ben Gurion's 13 years and becoming the longest-serving prime minister in the history of the state of Israel.

When it comes to the supreme questions about Israel's future, however, Mr Netanyahu seems almost proud to offer no answers. Throughout this campaign, he spoke incessantly about the threat posed by Iran, voicing genuine fears that are shared by many of his compatriots. But he said almost nothing about peace with the Palestinians. The great unresolved issues boil down to these questions. Where should the final borders of Israel be drawn? On what terms could a settlement be reached with the 5.6 million Arabs who live between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean? And, most fundamentally of all, will there be one state west of the Jordan or two? At various stages of his career, Mr Netanyahu has held every possible opinion on those conundrums.

Before his first premiership in 1996, he wrote books arguing that any Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would inevitably threaten Israel's survival. At the time, he favoured the straightforward annexation of all of the land between the river and the sea. Yet this school of thought has no answer to a simple fact: Arabs have more children than Jews. Demographic reality means that one day, the 5.6 million Arabs who currently live west of the Jordan will outnumber the six million Jews. If all of this land is simply incorporated into Israel, then the country will be destined to have an Arab majority. If that happens, Israel would be forced to choose between being a democracy or a Jewish state. By the time Mr Netanyahu returned for his second term as prime minister in 2009, this unavoidable reality had begun to intrude upon his thoughts. In that year, he gave a landmark speech at Bar Ilan University, in Tel Aviv, declaring his acceptance of the principle of a "demilitarised Palestinian state".

In his eyes, he then made a genuine effort to reach an agreement with the Palestinian leadership on a "two-state solution". In 2010, Mr Netanyahu imposed a partial and temporary freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. But a few months of peace talks got nowhere and they collapsed altogether when the settlement freeze expired. Last Monday - the day before his election victory - he abandoned his conciliatory words and went back to being against a Palestinian state.

For Mr Netanyahu, negotiating the birth of a Palestinian state would require painful concessions here and now. Under any viable peace agreement, thousands of Jewish settlers would have to be forcibly removed, by Israel itself, from the occupied land marked out for the new country called Palestine.

Most sensitively of all, Jerusalem would have to be divided into two national capitals.

Secure in office for a fourth term, it is possible his pragmatic streak will re-emerge. He could invite his Left-wing opponents from Zionist Union to join a national unity government, possibly in the hope of repairing his tattered relationship with America.

If he chooses to form a coalition of all colours - instead of one drawn solely from the Right and the hard Right - then the prime minister could pose once again as a leader prepared to grapple with Israel's great dilemmas.

But, for the moment, newly re-crowned "King Bibi", as he is being called, offers nothing but a swaggering and articulate brand of paralysis.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk