Before today's elections in Israel, the mainstream media seemed interested in arguing that Israelis had moved to the hard-right. After today's surprising result, which leaves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likely to return to power but leading a smaller, more centrist coalition, the media are apparently pivoting, declaring the election to be a setback for Netanyahu and, implicitly, a win for President Barack Obama's foreign policy.
Yes, Netanyahu suffered a blow. With 31 seats in the Knesset, according to exit polls, his Likud party is still by far Israel's largest. That represents a loss of 11 seats since the last election, a large drop. However, the biggest party in the last election, the center-left Kadima Party embraced by the American left, was wiped out.
The big winner is the centrist Yesh Atid ("There Is a Future") party, with 19 projected seats. Led by television personality Yair Lapid, the party is often described as "leftist," but that is because of its position on religious issues, not foreign policy (where it is hawkish). For decades, many Israelis have rankled at the exemption religious men have enjoyed from compulsory military service, and have complained about the power of the rabbinic establishment over family affairs. However, reform has been thwarted by the fact that religious parties have been a key part of Israeli coalition governments (no party commands an outright majority).
As in 2003, when Lapid's father, Tommy, led a similar reform movement at the head of the now-defunct Shinui ("Change") party, Israelis have looked beyond national security issues to choose their government based on domestic concerns. Yesh Atid promises to succeed where Shinui failed ten years ago.
Most of the left-wing parties won small numbers of seats, exceeding expectations; the far-left Meretz party enjoyed a good night but remains among the minnows, with a projected 7 seats. The fact remains that most Israelis are skeptical of the kind of foreign policy that President Obama believes is in their best interests.
Israelis want Netanyahu as their leader, especially in facing the threat of a nuclear Iran, the intransigence of the Palestinians, and the relentless pressure from the Obama administration. However, they also want to see social and economic reforms that have been promised by left and right but delayed for many years.
Prior to the election, most foreign coverage of the Israeli election dwelled on conservative upstart Naftali Bennett, whose new HaBayit HaYehudi ("The Jewish Home") party was challenging Netanyahu from the right. But Bennett's showing, while quite strong (12 seats projected), puts him in a distant fourth place.
As Gil Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post predicted last week: "...the foreign press will have to parachute back to Israel to report on how Israel did not end up moving rightward and why their reports before were so wrong."
(Final election results are expected in several hours, as of this writing--and the narrow margins may change.)