Here's the very short version of the Israeli election results: Benjamin Netanyahu ran unopposed—and lost. But he's still got a very good chance of returning to the prime minister's office.
In his last term, Netanyahu brought a total breakdown of negotiations with the Palestinians and stuck to a free-market orthodoxy that benefited only the richest Israelis. For those who long to see Israel change direction (as I wrote here a week ago) the most optimistic election scenario was deadlock followed by instability.
As the votes were counted last night, those too obsessed to sleep saw that scenario begin to come true. At 10 p.m., exit polls predicted that the rightwing bloc of parties would reach the thinnest possible majority, 61 or 62 seats out of 120 in parliament. In the small hours of the night, when 80 percent of the actual votes were counted, the numbers evened out, 60-60. As more votes were tallied, the right's majority reappeared—and finally vanished around dawn, as the last ballots were counted.
Or almost the last ballots. The slower process of tallying soldiers' votes is still in progress, and could cause a shift of a seat or two in one direction or the other.
Whatever the precise score at the end, the outcome is a debacle for the right as a whole and for Netanyahu in particular. The prime minister ran at the head of a joint slate: his own Likud and Avigdor Lieberman's bellicose Israel Is Our Home party. Together the two parties had 42 seats in the outgoing parliament. On Tuesday, they lost a quarter of their strength, dropping to 31 seats. The Likud itself sunk from 27 Knesset members to 20. Half of the seats lost by the joint slate went to a pro-settler religious party, Jewish Home, even further to the right. And half moved across the divide to the center and left, erasing the right's majority.
What makes this a hallucinatory outcome is not just that Netanyahu was the assumed winner throughout the campaign. He was also the only real candidate for prime minister. Five different parties competed for the support of the Jewish center and left, with another three vying for votes from the Arab minority. The leader of the new There Is a Future party, ex-TV personality Yair Lapid, was explicitly running for a influential place in the government—not to head it.
Lapid presented himself as representing the middle class, as favoring peace negotiations but keeping major settlements, and perhaps most clearly as demanding "equality of the burden"—that is, an end to the draft exemption for the ultra-Orthodox. The emotional subtext was that he stands for the people who see themselves as the real Israelis—urban, not religious or at least not too religious, who proudly remember their army service, who support peace as long as Israel doesn't have to give up too much, and who feel that they've lost the country. Lapid, that is, is the brand-new face of nostalgia. Last night he was the star: His party won 19 seats, nearly as many as the Likud.
In his post-election comments, Lapid sounds almost relieved that the left and center did not quite win a majority. Had they done so, Lapid—who has never held office before—would have almost no choice but try to build a coalition and become prime minister. Instead Netanyahu, battered by the voters, is likely to get the first chance to form a government. In the meantime, several important conclusions can be drawn:
First, the Israeli public isn't moving further and further right. This oft-repeated assumption has been an excuse, both here and in foreign capitals, for despair and inaction on the diplomatic front. For over 20 years, Israel's electorate has been consistent only in swinging back and forth between advocates of compromise with the Palestinians and the grim proponents of hunkering down. At the middle of the Israeli public electorate is a very large number of people who are not just undecided; they are passionately conflicted. Opinion surveys performed outside election season show that much of the public wants negotiations with the Palestinians and doubts they can succeed, wants to give up occupied territory but somehow to avoid evacuating settlements, at least large ones. They are up for grabs. A working peace process is the best means to convince them that peace could work. Even without a peace process, many deserted Netanyahu.
Second, the opposition threw this election away. If it drew a tie without actually contesting the premiership, imagine what could have happened in a real race. Imagine, and weep. Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich tried to run on economic issues alone, ignoring settlers and Palestinians. Ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni set up her own party, which ran only on the platform of renewing negotiations. Shaul Mofaz kept the shattered remains of his Kadima party in the race, drawing off votes. Lapid acted as if he knew none of them. None was a believable candidate for prime minister with a comprohensive argument for a different Israel.
Third, higher turnout among Israel's Palestinian citizens could have added seats to their parties and tipped the balance against Netanyahu. Arabs stay home in part because they believe their votes will have no influence. And parties of the Jewish center and left share the blame for this. Fearful of the right, they've kept the rule that Arab parties are not candidates for participating in governing coalitions—meaning that Arab politicians cannot claim that if they get more votes, they can do more for their community.
Fourth, whatever coalition is formed in the weeks ahead will be built on sand. The conscription issue makes it nearly impossible for Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox to join the same government. If Netanyahu creates an alliance with Lapid and the rightist Jewish Home, it will start coming apart the moment the prime minister has to deal with American or European pressure to resume diplomacy with the Palestinians. Even lip service to a two-state agreement will push the ideological settlers of Jewish Home to bolt. Yet if Lapid lets Netanyahu ignore a diplomatic opening, his own backbenchers will rebel.
Are you paying attention, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel, Mr. Obama? If you visit Jerusalem and urge the prime minister to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he'll tell you to keep quiet; his coalition could collapse. That's a good reason to speak loudly. Even running against no one, Netanyahu did not win a vote of confidence this week for intransigence.