The polls have closed on the elections for Israel's next Knesset and with over 99% of the vote tallied we can start to try to understand what did and did not happen yesterday.  One thing is for certain, the pollsters, projecting a marked shift and a big Labor/Zionist Camp win and the end of the Netanyahu era, got it wrong (for one explanation of why pollsters failed, see this anaylsis). But beyond that?

Many folks here in Boston are familiar – through his visits and through CJP and JCRC study tours – with Prof. Reuven Hazan's modelling of the five camps in Israel's electorate and Knesset representation. A look at last night's tallies tells an interesting story:

  • Left/Progressive Zionist Camp (Labor & Meretz) gained 2 seats from 27 -> 29. 
  • Arab sector camp (Joint Arab List) gained 2 seats from 11 -> 13. 
  • Centrist Zionist camp – known for constantly establishing new parties that are economy focused, 2 state supporters (Yesh Atid, Kulanu, former Kadima) – stayed even at 21 seats. 
  • National Zionist camp (Likud, Jewish Home, Israel Beytanu) gained 1 from 43 -> 44. 
  • Ultra-Orthodox camp (Shas and United Torah Judaism) are the only camp that lost seats, down from 18 -> 13.

In other words, while there were winners and losers, there was no major realignment in the Israeli electorate.

The traditional major parties of the progressive and national Zionist camps – Labor and Likud – consolidated their leadership of those camps, but they didnt expand the size of their camps in any meaningful way. In fact, had the Ultra-Orthodox not been divided with a third party splitting the Shas base and barely not making the 3.25% threshold, we'd be seeing little or no movement at all other than some growth of the Arab sector representation.

When all is said and done, the next Knesset will look a lot like the last one in its ideological divides. There will be more women than ever before. There will be greater Palestinian/Arab citizen representation than ever before, and not just on the Joint List.

Likud will be invited to take the first crack at forming the government. As with the last coalition, Netanyahu will need votes from the center to do so. The center is stable; Supporters of two-states but many of them dubious about the near-term possibilities and thus focused instead on economic and social issues. He can't govern without them and Moshe Kahlon is their kingmaker.

The Arab citizens, if they can hold ther coalition, will have a greater voice in Israeli politics than ever before; A welcome development that is important for Israel's democracy and more necessary than ever in light of the ugliness in this campaign.

Herzog is at the head of a revived progressive Zionist Union, aka the Labor party. They've found a voice, but haven't brought other Israelis over to them in transformative numbers.

Kahlon has some decisions to make, together with his faction including former Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who like Kahlon is a former Bibi ally. What will they demand and from whom to get their core priorities advanced? Will their finance agenda take precedence over their diplomatic critique of Bibi? Will they find a way to finess the differences?

Smaller parties have their own strategic issues. Meretz needs to figure out what it means to be a reduced member of the opposition. Yesh Atid needs to figure out how to move its centrist social agenda forward if it is not part of the government. Israel Beitanu and Jewish Home, both led by former staffers of Bibi and both having been eaten alive by his Likud revival, will still be essential to his ability to form any coalition that leaves Labor out.

Bibi has a huge challenge ahead. After a campaign that was heavy on political preservation but offered little in the way of vision or hope, the man who sought to speak for the world's Jews will now be hard-pressed to speak for all of Israel's citizens. It is very likely that his next coalition will look a lot like his last one, at least in terms of the factions at the table. But the campaign, his promises, and the perception by Israel's closest allies of his own leadership have changed in this election.

Millions of shekels have been spent on an early election. Little has changed in the nature of Israel's body politic and in the diversity of one of the most fascinating and most democratic parliaments in the world; Once again Islamists and Haredi rabbis, Palestinian nationalists and Jewish settlers, communists and high-tech millionaires will sit side by side to give voice to their constituents and the citizens of Israel.

Israel's voters have spoken and by and large they said "more of the same." What that means for Israel's ability to govern and move forward we just don't know yet.

Note: This post was revised on Thursday March 19 to update the seat totals based on the final tally. In the final tally Meretz and the progressive Zionist camp gained an additional seat. The Joint Arab List dropped 1 gain to a total of 2 more seats.

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