The large, pragmatic center in Israeli politics, meanwhile, remains stubbornly invisible to many analysts in the international media.
A somewhat hysterical story of Israel’s imminent turn to the far right and the decline of Israeli democracy was told and re-told in the western media in the weeks prior to the elections. Even some of Israel’s less well informed friends began to buy into it.
There was little substance to this. It was based on the emergence on the national-religious side of Israeli politics of a new, young and charismatic leader, Naftali Bennett. Bennett succeeded in uniting the old National Religious Party support with the far right (in the process, removing other far-right lists from the Knesset.)
Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi list won 11 seats. If he seems to have failed, it is because he was built up to absurd proportions by an international media keen to cast Israel as a country falling to the radical right. In terms of what was actually possible, he has recorded a modest but notable achievement.
As for the western pundits — as one wag on a British website put it — “its almost as if they have absolutely no idea what they ‘re talking about when it comes to Israel.”
The “winner” of the elections, of course, was the Likud Beyteinu list of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the sense that this list is by far the largest in the new Knesset, and Netanyahu is set to form the new government. But at 31 seats, it fell far short of the number its component parts (Likud and Yisrael Beyteinu) held in the outgoing parliament (42).
This was the result of a lackluster campaign, and probably also because supporters of each of the component parts of the list were reluctant to vote for the other, thus taking their votes elsewhere.
The coalition negotiations will now begin. Likud Beyteinu and almost certainly Yesh Atid will be members of the new government. Their combined strength is around 50 seats. Other likely additions will be one or another combination of Bennett’s Bayit Hayehudi, the ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism lists, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua, and the remains of Kadima.
Bottom line: the underlying strength and maturity of Israel’s democracy was demonstrated this week. With a region in flames all around them, Israelis pulled off an election with a high turnout (66.6%), conducted efficiently and transparently, focusing on a substantive discussion of the key issues facing the country, but largely devoid of deep division and rancor. The results indicate that a large, sane, pragmatic center is the core presence in Israeli political life. It is to be hoped that the government that emerges from the coalition negotiations will reflect this reality.