It was the biggest media failure ever.
For weeks, the world’s press had been predicting a sweeping victory for Israel’s rightwing parties, further securing their hold on the country, pushing it deeper into the hands of political extremists.
By 6am on Wednesday, Israel’s incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, together with his coalition partners, was being dubbed a loser.
Not only had he failed to conduct an effective campaign, contended the country’s conservative press. He’d also misjudged Israel’s political mood, proffered a majority of Israel’s leftwing pundits.
As with all events in Israeli politics, one must be careful not to take such pronouncements literally.
For all intents and purposes, Netanyahu will remain Israel’s leader, albeit with a significantly reduced parliamentary majority.
Having lost nearly a dozen seats, his joint Likud/Israel Beitenu list, run together with his Moldovan-born neo-fascist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, will have to form a broad coalition in order to govern effectively.
With numerous potential suitors, including centrist, religious and settler parties, Bibi has plenty of options with which to preserve the status quo.
How then, might we account for the negative verdicts on Netanyahu’s campaign? At best, it is a reflection of the fact that its results break the spell cast upon Israelis and foreigners alike, that the country has succumbed to its own internal logic as a typical colonial settler state run by a constellation of racist, militarist and free market ideologues.
With parliament now evenly divided between rightist and centre-left parties (60/60, according to available statistics) the conclusion is a reasonable one to explore. Something has indeed happened here. The question is whether it is of such profundity.
Judging from the proclaimed victor of this election – Yair Lapid’s centre-left Yesh Atid party – the answer is no. While there is no doubt that Lapid’s success is significant (19 parliamentary seats gained, for a brand new political party), Lapid does not offer any alternative ideas to those already present in Israel’s political marketplace.
A handsome ex-television show host and newspaper columnist, he simply cast a more elegant, attractive figure, as an outsider, who middle class, urban Israelis could identify with. Lapid could still very well enter a coalition with Netanyahu.
If there is any significance about these election results, it is the fact that centre-left parties could and would make a difference to the stability of Israel’s present political establishment.
Hence the remarkable change in events originally forecast by the news media. Few countries are as subject to twentieth century-style authoritarian scenario fantasies as Israel. With good reason.
The policies pursued, particularly under the most recent Netanyahu government, echo the worst of the last century’s nationalist politics, both in central and eastern Europe, and South Africa. Such typically democratic events, which profess even a limited degree of political pluralism, and diversity, do not conform with such an imaginary. Indeed, they are confounding.
Still, this is part what makes the Israeli example so hard to parse, both to the foreign press, and to progressive political analysis.
Yes, economic and moral anxiety over Israel’s present political direction played a role in Tuesday’s vote. Few political leaders have been fiercer champions of the destruction of Israel’s public sector, and its welfare state, than Benjamin Netanyahu, who is well-known for his Thatcherite economic outlook.
More Israelis live in poverty than ever. Under the present government, Israel’s deficit has similarly been allowed to swell to unprecedented levels. Following the summer of 2011 social protests, it is not hard to connect the dots. The economy still matters to Israelis.
However, none of the centre-left parties, reinvigorated by today’s vote, espouse a serious economic program deviating in any real way, from that of Netanyahu’s.
This is why Lapid’s success is significant. At best he represents a turn back to the days when Israel could have its cake and eat it too: a peace process with settlements, privatisation with welfare, affluence and poverty.
If only he could be as specific.
Perhaps Lapid’s utility is that, in not having a definable ideological position, Israelis can project onto him what we want, what we hope.
I imagine this is his breakthrough. That, in itself, is testimony to this election’s achievement. Clearly, we have a lot more work to do.