Benjamin Netanyahu is renowned in Israel as someone who can quickly deal with new realities — and then make political capital out of them.
The prime minister proved it once again this week by making his first post-election phone call to the big suprise winner in Tuesday’s Israeli elections — former broadcaster and columnist Yair Lapid.
Mr Lapid shocked the political establishment by leading his new party, Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) to an astonishing achievement — 19 Knesset seats in its first ever electoral contest, making it the second largest party.
The new party’s leader had run an energetic campaign over the past year that defied attempts to pigeonhole him in traditional definitions of right and left.
He picked up the votes of Israelis who were fed up with the squabbling between the Likud-Beiteinu alliance, its right-wing rivals, Habayit Hayehudi, and the other centre parties: Labour, Hatnuah and Kadima.
Mr Netanyahu, who spent most of election day touring the country exhorting Likud voters to the polling station, was quick to acknowledge the new political landscape on Tuesday night. As soon as the exit polls were announced he phoned Mr Lapid, recognising him as the new political kingmaker, congratulating him on his success and expressing the hope that they could work together.
At a press briefing on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu said that the voters had made it clear that they wanted him to continue serving as prime minister. He also said that they had voted for “changes” and mentioned three of the central planks of Yesh Atid’s platform: electoral reform, affordable housing and, most importantly, an “equality of the burden”, codewords for a new universal conscription law on national service which will also include yeshiva students.
On Wednesday night, Mr Lapid spoke to the media outside his house and noted with satisfaction that the prime minister had adopted his party’s message.
He also dismissed the idea mooted by Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich on Tuesday night, in the immediate aftermath of the vote, for an anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties to come together to force the prime minister out of office.
He said that he was taking any such talk “off the table” .
With that, he effectively confirmed that Mr Netanyahu will remain prime minister.
But the make-up of the new coalition, although still headed by Mr Netanyahu, will be dramatically different from that of the outgoing government. While all the polls taken before the elections indicated that the right-wing-religious bloc of parties would form a natural coalition with a bolstered Likud, the actual result was very different.
This was shown not least in the dramatic and unexpected weakening of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc, which now have a quarter fewer seats than the two separate parties had had in the previous Knesset.
But the biggest loser is the Labour leader. Ms Yachimovich ran a campaign focusing exclusively on social and financial issues but refused to call her party “left-wing.” Labour’s policy was based on polling that indicated Israelis were much more concerned with their financial welfare than security issues.
Her tactics misfired from the start, when the one-issue campaign pushed away senior members who joined Tzipi Livni’s new Hatnuah party, which emphasised the peace process and attracted Labour’s traditional voters.
Labour won 15 seats — at the bottom end of expectations — and only came in third place, leading many senior party figures to float the need for a new leadership contest as soon as possible.
The issue of conscription for yeshiva students is now the main obstacle to the inclusion of Likud’s traditional partner, Shas, the Charedi party, in the next government. Although it held to its 11 seats, Shas is not mathematically necessary for a new coalition, though Mr Netanyahu would almost certainly like to see its familiar faces around his cabinet table.
The prime minister was said to be trying to find a formula so that Shas could sit in the next government and still be allowed to vote against the national service law.
Another winner in the elections, although less surprising, is Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) which won 11 seats (possibly 12 once the final votes are counted). Habayit Hayehudi is also expected to be a member of the new coalition, but Mr Lapid’s ascendancy, and his demand that Israel returns to serious talks with the Palestinian Authority, has already caused the right-wing party’s new MKs to tone down their nationalist rhetoric.
“We are not against talks, if anyone thinks there is still anything to be achieved by it,” said the party’s number two, Uri Ariel. “Let them talk.”