Netanyahu dealt weak hand by voters

Benjamin Netanyahu

The election victory may be his, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerges with a dented reputation and a weak hand as he tries to form a stable government.

There is an old song which struggles to encapsulate the essence of romance in a string of fleeting images.

One of them is the sound of a waiter whistling as the last bar closes.

The news equivalent, I now discover, is the clatter of the last length of security fencing being loaded onto a pick-up truck as a political party's election event winds down in the small hours of the morning.

Nothing feels more out of date than the leftover pile of smiling bumper stickers of a candidate who has just discovered that he does not have much to smile about.

Nothing feels more forlorn than a bunch of slowly-deflating balloons on which the party logo is shrinking and twisting.

It somehow did not quite feel as though the Likud Party - the right-wing nationalist movement led by Benjamin Netanyahu - had won the election, although broadly speaking it had.

A senior Likud member told me there is no such thing as a disappointing victory but of course in politics there is.

Mr Netanyahu hung onto his job but his party lost seats.

His aura as the most successful politician of modern times in Israel has been dented just as he embarks on the intensive round of arm-twisting and ear-bending required to form a government here.

Israeli officials have long made the point that theirs is the only democracy in the Middle East - a claim that calls for a little tweaking or qualification in the light of Egypt's elections last year.

But privately Israelis sometimes grumble that their system can be a little too democratic.

I am told it takes an average of 56 days after the vote to form a government here.

Image caption Over 66% of Israelis voted on Tuesday - a higher turnout than the last election

In that period, the leaders of various factions large and small tell the prospective prime minister what sort of political concessions they want in return for agreeing to join the government.

In return he tells them exactly how far short of their expectations he is proposing to fall.

The Knesset is a complex kaleidoscope of competing factions that cannot be conveniently distributed along the conventional spectrum that runs from right to left.

At one point, 34 parties had candidates in this year's election campaign, all vying for the 2% share of the vote which guarantees you a parliamentary seat.

The cannabis movement never made it - presumably any party which campaigns on the legalisation of recreational drugs is prone to the odd organisational lapse.

And the Jolly Roger will not be flying over the Knesset either. The Pirate Party also failed to make the cut.

But there are parties that represent ultra-orthodox Jews of European origin and, separately, those whose roots can be traced to other parts of the Middle East and Persia.

And there are Israeli Arab parties too - it is easy to forget that Arabs make up almost a fifth of the population of this country.

What is interesting about this election is that the dynamic new force in parliament comes not from the far-right of Israeli politics as many expected, but from the centre.

A new party called "There is a Future" is the second-largest force in the new Knesset.

Image caption Israeli television personality Yair Lapid founded the Yesh Atid party last year

It is led by a popular television personality called Yair Lapid. If you are British or American, you will have to imagine David Dimbleby or David Letterman stepping down from the screen to sort the country out.

Using the term "centrist" in the context of Israeli politics is not always helpful.

I suspect that to many Europeans, it conjures an image of a leader who would be much less tough in negotiations with the Palestinians than Mr Netanyahu would.

But Mr Lapid does not believe that Israel should have to divide Jerusalem with the Palestinians in a future peace deal - one of the core elements of the two-state solution that the wider world continues to believe in.

That Mr Lapid is labelled a centrist perhaps shows you where the centre of gravity of Israeli opinion on such matters lies these days.

His big ideas are about Israeli society, not Israeli diplomacy.

He wants to end the special treatment enjoyed by ultra-orthodox Jews, who are exempt from military service and who often choose to devote their lives to studying scripture on welfare rather than working and paying tax.

Mr Lapid is keen for the burdens of the state to be shared more evenly.

The problem for Mr Netanyahu is that he might need the support both of Mr Lapid and of those parties who represent those ultra-orthodox communities and who fiercely defend their privileges.

Image caption The campaigns have now been wound down, but there could be more election rallies later in 2013

That is what happens when you do not get as many seats as you hoped yourself and have to cast about for partners and build improbable alliances.

There was a time when headline writers sometimes referred to Benjamin Netanyahu as "King Bibi", conjuring the image of a colossus bestride the world of modern Israeli politics.

In fact, his electoral record is rather patchier than that would suggest. His critics sniff that he is not a strategist - a broker or dealer, more than a weaver of visions.

He will need all those tactical skills to create a stable government out of the rather weak hand Israeli voters have now dealt him.

Plenty of people here think we will be blowing up balloons, printing bumper stickers and getting the security fencing back out for more election rallies before too long.

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