By crowning Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid the kingmaker in Israel’s next government, Israeli voters have rejected the rightward swing forecast by polls, although the far right remains powerful.
In the days before the January 22 vote, the election’s star was Naftali Bennett, whose young leadership looked to be steering his national religious Jewish Home party to a massive showing of 15 seats.
Polls showed voters defecting to Bennett from the joint list fielded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who upped his rightwing rhetoric in a bid to stem the flow.
But in the end, Jewish Home garnered 12 seats, and the extreme rightwing Otzma LeyIsrael, frequently accused of anti-Arab racism, failed to even cross the electoral threshold necessary to gain a place in the 120-seat Knesset.
Instead, the centrist Yesh Atid defied pollster expectations to become the star of the elections, winning 19 seats, more than double its expected haul.
“Drunk with power, the settlers and nationalists made the public sick of them and allowed an inexperienced television star to move four or five critical Knesset seats from the right-wing bloc to the centre bloc,” wrote Haaretz newspaper columnist Ari Shavit.
“This week, the idiotic march of the right to the rightwing of the right came to an end, and the renewed march of the right toward the centre began,” he added.
“This week proved that, as opposed to the impression both here in Israel and in the world, Israel is not messianic and not racist and not anti-democratic,” he continued.
“The revolt is a promising one, of the sane Israel against the insane one,” he wrote in the leftleaning daily.
Writing in the Maariv daily, Yael Paz-Melamed said the election results expressed the will of “the silent majority in Israel.”
“The people who work, pay taxes, go to the army, serve in reserve duty … got off of the couch, filled the ballot boxes and took back the power they deserve,” she wrote.
Dan Avon, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, said Lapid’s success was a sign of maturity in Israeli society.
“We’re not a society under siege anymore,” he told AFP. “The middle class in Israel has grown, which is wonderful, and it’s normal.”
“One wakes up in the morning, wants to go to work, wants to come back home safely, wants to love when possible and to defend himself when needed,” he added.
“One doesn’t need to be feel besieged all the time. This has changed. Israel matures.”
Lapid is not, however, a peacenik.
He campaigned in the Ariel settlement in the heart of the West Bank, and while he favours peace talks with the Palestinians, he opposes dividing Jerusalem and expects Israel to retain most of its Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
“I don’t see a peace coalition or a peace camp emerging now and revitalising itself,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, told reporters after the results.
“We don’t think that suddenly the sun is out and peace is on the horizon,” she added. “We know that the policies and measures put in place by the Israeli government are not going to be undone or easily reversed or changed.”
Analysts and voters said that some of Lapid’s support came from Israelis eager to reign in the most rightwing tendencies of Netanyahu, who never appeared in danger of losing his prime minister’s post.
“If Netanyahu is prime minister, there need to be people to block him, to calm him down,” Nitza Salman, a mother of four sons serving in the Israeli military, told AFP on election day.
Speaking after the vote, Netanyahu appeared to acknowledge the message from the electorate, pledging to form a broad coalition and acknowledging that the next government’s concerns should be socio-economic rather than ideological.