Updated: Jan. 23, 2013 at 5:00 a.m. EST
If Israel’s campaign was something less than compelling, election night made up for it. When polling places closed at 10 p.m. local time, the country’s three major television stations were free to reveal the results of exit polls gathered from voters who had turned out in surprisingly large numbers. None had the weight of actual results, which would take all night to tally, but all the surveys found the same thing: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was staggered. With a projected 31 seats in the next Knesset, or parliament, his faction would nominally remain the largest. But that faction entered the campaign with a lot more seats, 42, than it came out with, so the “victory” — if the exit polls are truly representative — was an extraordinarily feeble one. Indeed, by Wednesday it was clear that Netanyahu had kept his job—but barely.
In terms of perception, the clear winner was Yair Lapid, a former anchorman and newspaper columnist who was running his first campaign. Late-deciding voters broke heavily for his centrist party, called Yesh Atid (There Is a Future). Two polls gave it 19 seats and a third poll 18; on Wednesday, unofficial returns had him at 19. That was good enough for second place, ahead of the Labor Party, which the preliminary count gave 15 seats, a bit lower than expected, also running on economic issue. Overall, unofficial returns showed the Knesset perfectly divided between right and center-left: Each bloc claimed 60 seats.
Within that balanced universe, Lapid and Netanyahu essentially tied and it’s been reported that coalition talks are set to start. Having merged his Likud party with the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman for purposes of the elections, Netanyahu can personally claim leadership of only two-thirds of the 31 seats. “The Likud and Yesh Atid are now the same size,” Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit maintained on Channel 1. “So these are two people, one who failed and one who succeeded. The question is, Can they work together? If they can, this could lead to the formation of a right wing–center government.”
Netanyahu signaled his appetite for just that as soon as the polls closed, posting on his Facebook page that the next government should be “as broad a coalition as possible” and phoning Lapid after polls closed to coax him toward a coalition. For his part, Lapid has pointedly refused to forswear forming a government led by Netanyahu — not least, the conventional wisdom went, because he’s never held office and could stand the seasoning of a ministerial post before presuming to take on the top job.
But the gap between Israel’s center-left and right-wing parties appears to be so narrow — indeed, tied — that other outcomes become plausible. The Labor Party immediately began beating the drum to oust Netanyahu, arguing that Lapid ran against the platforms of other parties Netanyahu would likely invite to form a government. The outcome carried significant implications: though both Lapid and Labor ran chiefly on economic issues, both also favor renewing peace talks with the Palestinians, which have languished under Netanyahu — and were flatly ruled out by the settler-activists who swarmed the Likud primary and who dominated the Jewish Home party that had challenged him from the right.
“This is electoral chaos,” said Mickey Rosenthal, a Labor candidate. “A government consisting of the Likud, Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home will be divided on core issues. We will now try to form a blocking majority and a center-left government. I hope that Yesh Atid will not mislead its voters and take its seats to Netanyahu.”
The night demonstrated the fluid nature of Israeli electoral politics, at least at the party level. Not four years ago, the largest vote getter was a center-right party called Kadima, which actually won one more seat than Netanyahu’s Likud. But Netanyahu was more adept at gathering “natural partners” into a coalition and formed the government. Meanwhile, Kadima imploded: the exit polls show it failing to qualify for even one seat. Many of its former supporters clearly migrated to Lapid, who staked out positions aimed at the dead center of Israeli society.
“We were very clear, we said that the middle class could not be trampled and it was the middle class that showed up at the polling stations,” Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid said on Channel 1.
Netanyahu was hampered by a remarkably lackluster campaign, his alliance with Lieberman — who began the campaign by resigning as Foreign Minister after being indicted for fraud — and by challenges from his right flank. Under former commando and hi-tech success story Naftali Bennett, the pro-settler Jewish Home party broadened its appeal to Israeli youth, gathering tens of thousands of voters who might have otherwise cast ballots for Netanyahu. The party tied with the religious Shas party for fourth place with 11 seats, less than indicated by earlier surveys. Bennett told TIME in early January that he feared his party was peaking too soon. It may well have. One prominent Israeli pollster was quoted as saying voters migrated from Bennett’s party to Lapid’s in the last two weeks, as Netanyahu surrogates took aim at the positions of Jewish Home’s more extreme candidates.
In the first flush of the exit polls, pundits gravitated toward a consensus prediction that Netanyahu would manage to continue as Prime Minister, but only by assembling a coalition so unstable that new elections would follow relatively soon. But it was all just talk until the actual votes were tallied — at which point meaningful negotiations would begin. ”Anything is possible,” said Yitzhak Herzog, the No. 2 figure in Labor. “It’s enough for one party to rise a bit and one to drop, and the entire bloc changes. If this is the case — and we’ll have to wait for the end of the night — in this case, Yesh Atid and the Labor Party are the core of a different coalition for Israel.”
In Israeli politics, governing coalitions typically are formed within a week after the elections, and this one just got a whole lot more interesting.