Anyone who read about the Israeli elections in the UK media in the past week will have been told that Israel was set to choose its most right-wing government ever, and that the star was a young, right-wing nationalist named Naftali Bennett. Oops.
Those reporters made a fatal mistake. They forgot to check with the Israeli electorate first, who were unwilling to stick to the script that so many had written for them. The UK correspondents should not feel too bad. Many Israeli pundits made the same mistake. Those digging deeper into the more detailed polling numbers over the last couple of weeks would have been more cautious. They would have been aware that there was a high level of undecided among likely voters, and that many of those undecided voters were swaying between various options on the centre-left. And anyone who can remember back to 2006 will know that polls cannot be relied on, after the obscure Pensioners party entered the Knesset with seven seats, completely under the radar of the pollsters.
Well it turned out that the voters surprised the pundits once again. The new star that Israel's floating centrist voters anointed was not the pro-settlement Bennett (though he still scored a credible 11 seats), but another political newcomer: secular, centrist former TV anchor Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid ('There is a Future') party. Having only averaged around ten seats in the polls for most of the campaign, Lapid came up with a whopping 19 when the real votes were counted, making him the leader of the second largest party.
Rather than a more right-wing Knesset, Israel has elected a more centre-left orientated parliament. Though the right-wing parties are represented by more hard-line members than last time, they have been punished by the electorate as a result.
The final count may change a seat here or there, but it seems the centre-left bloc (including the Arab parties) has grown from 55 seats in the last Knesset to 60 in the next. The right-wing bloc (including the ultra-Orthodox) has slipped to an equal 60. The joint Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has fallen from a combined strength of 42 seats to 31.
Though Kadima, the main centrist party from the last Knesset, collapsed from 28 seats to just two at best, its place has been more than filled by other centre-left parties. These include Yesh Atid (19), former foreign minister Tzipi Livni's pro-peace Hatnua party (six), and an improved performance for Labour (15) and the proudly left-wing Meretz (six).
The core of Lapid's campaign was a commitment to represent the socioeconomic interests of Israel's middle class, largely secular, centre-ground, who feel they bear an unfair share of the national burden in contributing to the work force, paying taxes and serving in the military. Lapid is committed to equal military service to include ultra-Orthodox men and to cutting stipends that fund religious study instead of work. However, the peace process is also part of his agenda. He told supporters last night:
"We are facing an economic crisis that is threatening to crush the Israeli middle class; we are facing a world that is liable to ostracise us because of the deadlock in the peace process; we are facing the fear of the dissolution of society that is being caused by the issue of equal sharing of the burden. There is only one way in which we will be able to face all of those challenges: together."
Netanyahu is still the leader of the largest faction, and the only leader who appears able to form a workable coalition. However, with a narrow right-wing coalition now looking impossible even in theory, Lapid will have considerable leverage over the direction of the next government.
After endless column inches have been written in recent years about Israel's lurch to the right and the demise of its democracy, Israel's political system, and its electorate, have challenged their critics and demonstrated their capacity for dynamism and renewal. They have once again redrawn the map of Israel's party system overnight, and at the same time returned a host of fresh faces from across the spectrum. These include, aside from Yesh Atid's all new list, prominent young leaders of Israel's 2011 social protest movement who are on the Labour list. That social protest movement has now proved its significance in changing the political agenda in Israel and shaking-up Israel's previously muted middle-class.
Whilst Netanyahu will likely remain the man at the helm, the voters have demanded change, and the next Israeli government will have to reflect that.