Sixty-Sixty

The elections to Israel's Knesset, held on Tuesday, were singular not only in the intensity of debate they had generated, but also for the near certainty of the predicted outcome. The rightwing bloc, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was expected to sweep the polls. With 99.8 per cent of votes counted, the results are a shocker. Netanyahu, who had merged his Likud party with former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu before the polls, ended up with 31 seats, losing a quarter of the 42 Likud and Beiteinu had held together in the outgoing Knesset. The rightwing and leftwing blocs got about 60 seats each, opening the doors to Israel's routine horse-trading after every parliamentary election. With the leader of the largest party usually called by the president to form a government, Netanyahu will have 28 days to do so, with a 14-day grace period, if necessary.

Netanyahu's return as PM is not the news. It's Israel's refusal to fulfil the prophecy of commentators and pollsters that the country would make an irreversible rightward lurch with this election, throwing to the winds all progress made with the Palestinians. The rise of the ultra-right had brought the settlers of the West Bank close to hijacking an election for the first time in Israel's history. That, coupled with the increasingly influential religious parties, appears to have compelled secular voters to haul the country back to the centre. The surprising performance of TV celebrity-turned-politician Yair Lapid's nascent Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which finished second with 19 seats is explained by nothing else. Lapid had campaigned on ending military service exemption for the ultra-Orthodox community and on civic and economic difficulties.

Israel inhabits a neighbourhood that has changed beyond recognition since its last elections in 2009. The Arab world has had its Spring, the Palestinians have got UN non-member observer status and there is a civil war in Syria, to say nothing of a potentially nuclear Iran. In this climate, the brakes that have been applied to increasing rhetorical belligerence within Israel might serve everybody well. Israel's loud and chaotic politics is, after all, the mark of the Middle East's only genuine democracy.

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