Netanyahu’s humiliating win creates room for new parties in Israel

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu leaves the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu headquarters in Tel Aviv Photo: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS

Surveying the Israeli newspapers this morning, here is my favourite headline, from Haaretz: 'Bibi plummets to victory'.

For so it is that a Prime Minister who aspires to embody a nation’s defiance against all enemies and by common consensus had no serious rivals for power suffered a win that is humiliating.

Perhaps Benjamin Netanyahu’s dominance of the political scene was part of his problem.

In their heads, Israeli voters assumed he would come out on top. In their hearts, they felt free to flirt with other parties.

Whatever the reason, the result is a nation deeply and evenly divided between right and centre-left.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the Bayit Yehudi party, gestures after casting his vote Credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS

On the far right, the champion of Jewish settlements on Arab land, Naftali Bennett, did well but fell far short of the more spectacular predictions.

The real success is the rise and rise of the centre in the shape of a party that did not even exist a year ago. It is led by a former TV presenter, Yair Lapid, who is suddenly transformed from political commentator to political king-maker.

For Netanyahu to keep his job; he will need to forge an alliance with partners from both flanks. It is not impossible but it is a tough task.

For example, Lapid’s party has vowed to end the exemption from military service enjoyed by ultra-orthodox Jews.

For the right-wing religious parties, that exemption is an article of faith.

Yair Lapid (C), has turned from heartthrob television news anchor into a rising star of Israeli politics Credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS

Israelis have voted on the issues that matter to them - predominantly the economy and strained standards of living.

The issues that matter to the wider world - the stalled Palestinian peace process and Iran’s nuclear programme - have barely merited a mention here.

After a dull election campaign that packed a surprise punch right at the end, perhaps that’s the biggest surprise of all.

So don’t expect any dramatic shift in Israeli policy on Palestine or Iran.

In the short-term, the country faces weeks of horse-trading as the party leaders negotiate a coalition deal.

The resulting government might not be so stable. Some are already predicting fresh elections, perhaps little more than a year from now.