Israeli politics were gripped by tension and drama early Wednesday as the center-right and center-left blocs deadlocked in a 60-60 tie for seats in the Israeli Knesset. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party was the clear winner, and he will likely be invited to form a governing coalition by President Shimon Peres. However, his potential coalition partners did poorly, as the new Yesh Atid party surged to a surprise second place finish.
Yesh Atid's leader, former television journalist Yair Lapid (above), will now play the kingmaker as Israel awaits the last votes from absentee ballots, the military, diplomats and others who could not vote in person.
Interpreting the results requires understanding a few basic generalities about Israel's parliamentary system. For decades, no party has been able to win an outright majority. Usually--but not always--governments have been led by the party winning highest number of seats (Netanyahu's party came in second in 2009).
Divisions between "left" and "right" are not as clear in Israel as they are in the United States. On foreign policy issues, the right represents the majority view, since although most Israeli support a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, they do not trust the Palestinians to deliver peace. On economic issues, the left represents the majority: Israel's entrepreneurial culture coexists with an entrenched social welfare state. On religious issues, the left represents the majority, but religious parties in governing coalitions are typically able to veto reforms to education policy, family law, and conscription (from which religious scholars are exempt).
Netanyahu had been expected to win a third term as Prime Minister with ease. On foreign policy, he is the leader Israelis trust to handle the threats of terror and a nuclear Iran on the one hand, and the challenges of relations with U.S. President Barack Obama on the other.
But in economic and religious issues, the Israeli public has grown frustrated. In 2011, there were widespread, Occupy Wall Street-inspired protests against economic inequality and commercial monopolies that have kept the cost of living high even in a time of economic growth. And for decades, secular Israelis have wanted further distance between religion and state. In addition, one of Netanyahu's partners, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, was recently indicted for corruption.
The slowing Israeli economy, which had avoided much of the impact of the global recession until recently, also likely contributed to popular discontent with the Netanyahu government. None of Israel's opposition leaders, however, had emerged as a genuine alternative; even Lapid is something of a celebrity protest vote.
Now Israelis will endure some of the tension that American voters lived through during the Florida recount of 2000. Final election results will only be published later this week. In the meantime, Israeli leaders will race to assemble alternative governing coalitions.
Netanyahu has already invited Lapid to join his government, which would bring him to 50 seats. With either the conservative "Jewish Home" party, or the religious Shas party, Netanyahu could add another 11 seats. However, Lapid would prefer to sit in government with another center-left party, and may refuse to make the compromises necessary to form a coalition with Shas. The Labor party, which came in third with 15 seats, would likely refuse to join Netanyahu and is in fact trying to build a coalition that can unseat him.
The action will soon shift from ballot boxes to back rooms--while a nation awaits.
Update: The New Republic has an excellent summary of winners and losers.