Israelis went to the polls Tuesday to elect a new parliament and prime minister. By yesterday, despite high turnout and 99% of the vote counted, nearly everything was clear except the actual winner.
Chalk that up to an electoral system based on proportional representation, which encourages smaller or one-issue parties to compete rather than merge with larger parties. The result, this time, was that by early Wednesday morning two candidates could credibly claim to have won.
Tzipi Livni, current Foreign Minister and leader of the centrist Kadima Party, came away with the largest share of the vote, albeit by a razor-thin margin, and, with about 28 seats, not even half of the 61-seat coalition she will need to form a government. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud came in right behind, with about 27 seats. But he stands a better chance of assembling a coalition, thanks to the strong performance of other right-wing parties.
Israeli politics will now go into coalition-talks mode, a process that could drag on for weeks. But it isn't too early to draw conclusions about the vote. On balance, the Israeli electorate shifted rightward. Even as Likud failed to win an outright plurality, the party more than doubled its seats in parliament. A second party, Yisrael Beitenu, which campaigned for loyalty oaths as a requirement of citizenship, also increased its share of the vote to about 15 seats; its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, will now play the role of coalition kingmaker. By contrast, Ehud Barak's Labor Party, which once dominated Israeli politics, eked out only 13 seats, while the dovish Meretz got three.
The rightward tilt is easy to appreciate. Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who broke away from Likud to form Kadima, Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip. This was an opportunity for Palestinians to showcase the benefits of independent statehood to an ambivalent Israeli public. Instead, Gaza descended first into anarchy and then into the control of Hamas, which used Gaza as a launching pad for firing thousands of rockets of increasing range and sophistication into sovereign Israeli territory.
Israelis aren't eager to repeat the experiment by surrendering what remains of their control of the West Bank. That's especially so since Hamas cemented its alliance with Iran, which in turn is moving rapidly to acquire a nuclear weapon. Many Israelis were disappointed that the Bush Administration didn't do more to deter Iran, and they look skeptically at President Obama's pledge to engage Iran diplomatically.
Still, it would be a mistake to interpret the election as evidence that Israelis have moved to the far right. Yisrael Beitenu -- often denounced by the political left as crass and "fascistic" -- barely increased its share of the vote, while the pragmatic Ms. Livni significantly outperformed her recent polling numbers. Much of her success, we suspect, owes to Israeli fears that Mr. Netanyahu, with his go-slow approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process, would quickly tangle with the Obama Administration, much as he did with the Clinton Administration during his previous time in office.
However the political jockeying plays out, Israelis have once again reaffirmed their commitment to a democratic process that, for all its imperfections, will eventually produce a representative, responsible and lawful government. If only the same could be said of the Palestinians and the rest of Israel's neighbors, on whom any hopes for a lasting peace must ultimately rest.