Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US Vice-President Joe Biden at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv in 1995, I remember standing outside the hospital when his chief of staff, Eitan Haber, broke the news to the media. Some journalists put their heads in their hands. Rabin was gone—and with him, perhaps, the best chance for Mideast peace in a generation—killed by a Jewish extremist determined to keep Israel from returning more land to Arabs.

A few weeks before the assassination, an Israeli militant nationalist, Itamar Ben-Gvir, had appeared on television showing off a Cadillac hood ornament stolen from Rabin’s car and declaring, “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too.” That once-fringe, Arab-hating provocateur now heads the Jewish Power party and is poised to become the national security minister in a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Tapped for a third time to be prime minister, Bibi, as he’s known, is now moving to convene the most right-wing government in the history of the Jewish state.

President Joe Biden can’t ignore the implications for Israeli democracy and the dying Mideast peace process—although there are limits to what an American president can do in the Middle East, where the most important geostrategic rift is no longer between Israel and the Palestinians but between Iran and its Shia allies on one side and the Sunni states of the Gulf on the other. If unchecked, Ben-Gvir and his ilk would snuff out the last pathways to peace with the Palestinians. He and his extremist partners would threaten the rule of law in Israel and could undermine America’s iron-clad support for Israel.

Biden has tried to restore America’s credibility as an honest broker following Donald Trump’s one-sided policies, in part, by restoring aid to the Palestinians and resuming the long-standing policy of opposing settlement expansion, but that’s the bare minimum. The president deferred to Israel and agreed not to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, long seen as a nod to Palestinian claims to part of the divided city. (Trump had famously moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move at odds with decades of  U.S. policy.)

Israel’s allies, Democrats in Congress, and many in the American Jewish community are alarmed by the prospect that Ben-Gvir—who has been indicted dozens of times on incitement charges and whose followers have roamed the streets shouting “Death to the Arabs”—will almost certainly end up in the cabinet even though the attorney now insists he has “moderated” his views. “You will discover that we are all brothers [and] that we agree on 90% of the issues,” he wrote in a recent op-ed addressed to “My brethren on the Left.” But Ben-Gvir was once a proud disciple of Meir Kahane, whose anti-Arab ideology was so extreme that the United States and the EU listed the U.S.-born rabbi’s Kach party as a terrorist group.

“Ben-Gvir says he’s changed, but I don’t think so,” former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, who helped lead Middle East peace policy and conducted negotiations for three American presidents, told me. “But Bibi is 73,” Ross said. “His legacy will be shaped by what happens now, and he’s not going to let Ben-Gvir shape that legacy.”

Netanyahu’s expected coalition includes parties with radical anti-Arab, antidemocratic, and anti-LGBTQ views. Netanyahu just reached a deal with the ultraright Religious Zionism party, whose leader Bezalel Smotrich would join the government. Smotrich has advocated segregating Jewish and Arab mothers in maternity wards. Netanyahu has also signed a coalition agreement with the openly homophobic Noam party to make its leader Avi Maoz a deputy minister in charge of Jewish identity issues.

Still, Ross and others believe that Netanyahu might steer that toxic coalition toward mainstream policies like expanding the Abraham Accords (agreements Bibi helped negotiate with some Arab states), striking more deals with Saudi Arabia, and countering the threat from Iran.

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez warned Netanyahu during a visit to Israel in September that including “polarizing figures like Ben-Gvir” and other extremists in his coalition could erode bipartisan support for Israel. Major Jewish organizations in the U.S. and the Biden administration also are concerned because it impacts their ability to defend Israel against its critics in Washington and elsewhere.

Still, when Biden called Netanyahu following his victory to congratulate him, he commended Israel’s “free and fair elections,” pledged U.S. support for Israel’s security, and reaffirmed the partnership. Biden and Netanyahu have worked well together for 40 years, but what they can achieve now is hard to discern. The only thing going for Biden is that the Iran deal is on its last breath and the peace process comatose. No one expects much progress on those fronts.

“I don’t see any positives here,” Logan Bayroff, vice president of communications for J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group, told me. “Now, if this coalition is formed, you will have in ministerial positions these ‘Jewish Power’ party extremists that have supported acts of terror in the past and helped incite Rabin’s assassination. They are not just settlers; they are violent, anti-Palestinian racists.” J Street has said it is time for the U.S. to declare specific Israeli figures “persona non grata” to protect the bilateral relationship rather than weaken it. American officials did not meet with the Israeli hard-liner Ariel Sharon, for example, for 15 years.

In the administration’s most high-level policy statement since the Israel election, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a J Street gathering Sunday in Washington, D.C., that the U.S. still supports a two-state solution, continues to advocate for equal justice for both Israelis and Palestinians, and will engage with the new Israeli government based on “the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities.” Given the anti-Arab and anti-gay cabinet ministers named so far, that will be far easier said than done.

To be sure, Israel is an intact democracy that just held its fifth parliamentary election in three and a half years, with more than 70 percent voter turnout. However, some compare Israel’s new still-forming government to populist, authoritarian countries like Hungary.

Others worry that the new government may ignite anti-Arab provocations that touch off violence. Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned religious party leaders in the prospective coalition to be cautious about the Temple Mount, for example, because “the whole world is worried” about that volatile holy site in Jerusalem, where Al-Aqsa Mosque is located, the third-holiest shrine in Islam.

The whole world should worry. Ben-Gvir and some 2,200 other Israelis visited the Temple Mount in August, provoking Palestinians and the Arab world. (Sharon’s 2000 visit to the site touched off the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.) “When a match is lit in Al-Aksa, Nazareth begins to burn,” notes Elie Rekhess, an expert on Arab issues and professor of Jewish studies at Northwestern University, referring to the reactions of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Riots, clashes, and violence erupted in Israel over the past year as Palestinian citizens increasingly felt marginalized by Jewish Israelis. Netanyahu has painted Knesset Arab members as radical Islamists, which is not the case. Still, when he called them an “anti-Zionist party of Muslim Brotherhood terrorists,” it resonated with Jewish voters even though Palestinian Israelis vacation in the same places as their Jewish counterparts and eat in the same restaurants. They have, in many ways, “adopted the Israeli way of life,” Rekhess told me. Yet, he said, with growing divisions in Israeli society, “the powder keg is there.”

Clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank are on the rise, with an uptick in killings by both sides in recent months. And just last week, two bombs blamed on Palestinians exploded at bus stops on the outskirts of Jerusalem, killing two people and injuring 18 others. Such a coordinated attack has not happened there in years.

The prospective Israeli government could threaten the rule of law, too. Netanyahu faces bribery and fraud felony charges, which he has denied. The far-right members of the Netanyahu government could change that. The Religious Zionism party demands a law to allow the Knesset to override Israel’s Supreme Court rulings. Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party also wants to give the government control over the appointment of judges and to abolish the offense of “fraud and breach of trust,” one of the charges against Bibi, which he believes lets the judiciary interfere in the political system. Netanyahu has not endorsed this idea, but it could end his corruption trial if passed. Outgoing centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid and others have said these changes would destroy Israeli democracy.

Few would have imagined such a government not long ago, but Israeli democracy has endured. This election result was, in many ways, a cry for more security and stability. “What the Palestinian rioting did was it brought Ben-Gvir to power,” observes Gil Hoffman, an Israeli journalist and executive director of Honest Reporting, a media watchdog group. He says Netanyahu was right to sideline the Palestinians and expand the Abraham Accords. “Bibi wants his legacy to be about countering Iran and expanding the Abraham Accords,” Hoffman told me, “and not about burning down the country to stop the system for choosing Supreme Court judges.”

In their recent phone call, Biden told Netanyahu, “We’re brothers” and “Let’s make history together.” Normalizing relations with the Arab world was once unthinkable for Israel because the Arabs insisted that Israel solve the Palestinian conflict with a just solution first. But for the Palestinians, Bibi 3.0 is a source of “extreme worry and anxiety,” Ambassador Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom, told me. “I truly fear what these forces can do when reflecting on an already extremely volatile situation in the region … In a way, they are trying to make the Palestinian issue disappear—like, ‘Abracadabra, we don’t exist.’”

Biden and Netanyahu at least have a chance to keep the extremes in check. Ross, the former ambassador, thinks Netanyahu may find a way to expand his government to include other parties, so the far right can’t bring down his government if their demands aren’t met. “Bibi is generally risk averse. He will be careful,” Ross told me. “He won’t allow annexation, but he will allow more settlement activity. And he believes he’s the guy who can make a deal with Saudi Arabia.” With right-wingers holding pivotal positions, that’s about the best the U.S. can hope for.

Storer H. Rowley

Follow Storer H. on Twitter @BobSHRowley. Storer H. Rowley, a Washington Monthly contributing writer, is a former national editor, editorial board member, and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.