Not a make-or-break election
Given the current climate in the Middle East, the significance of this round of voting is in laying the foundations for the polls that will take Israel into its 70th year.
Despite the understandable excitement and the rise in voter turnout, the cliche of the "most critical election" has never felt more questionable than it has in this campaign season.
The enormous number of undecided voters counted in the public opinion polls was not only due to a sense of disappointment with most of the parties. It represents a fairly common attitude of citizens to a political system and the people in it, and it reflects the relative insignificance of this election in light of the public's recognition that notwithstanding the two different directions that could be taken with regard to the Palestinian issue the conditions in the Middle East do not yet hold out the possibility of fundamental change.
It was not Benjamin Netanyahu who said this, but Barack Obama, in the overlooked key sentence of Jeffrey Goldberg's controversial Bloomberg column from last week. The U.S. president complained that the Israeli prime minister's refusal to freeze the West Bank settlements and to move forward with the peace process jeopardized the survival of the state, but he also said he recognized the difficulty of Israeli territorial compromise in light of the unstable situation in the Middle East. This sentence presumably also explains why, despite the absence of mutual affection between the two countries' leaders, the relationship between Israel and the United States is still whole.
Another reason why the election cannot be called fateful is the fact that despite the two different directions the state could take in terms of economic policy, the global financial situation tempers the tendency, and the courage, to take on the risk inherent in making a change, despite the force of the social protest movement. A majority of Israelis, having recovered from a blind faith in either one of these directions, recognized the complexity of the situation and hesitated in their choice until the last moment. That is also one of the reasons for the success of the centrist parties that refused to propose a definitive path.
It's still not clear what kind of coalition will be formed. But it is obvious that the conditions will be changed before the end of the next term. Sufficient time will have elapsed to judge, with greater clarity, the shakeup of the global economy and the changes in the Middle East: The Iranian election could set off a new round of protests there; the situation in Syria will have been decided, and the situation in Jordan is liable to change. In addition, the international players who are relevant to us will have been replaced. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is unlikely to keep his position, and even our own President Shimon Peres will be a private citizen once more. If Netanyahu seeks a third consecutive term he will have to overcome the sense that even his admirers do not love him. To win the next election he will need to be seen as "the father of the nation," and while his managerial skills are prodigious such an image is beyond him.
Perhaps the same thing will happen to Avigdor Lieberman and to senior Likud figures that happened to Labor's "in-between generation," the members of which were in the end skipped over as the successors to Peres and to Yitzhak Rabin. If Naftali Bennett conducts himself in the manner of most leaders in the Israeli right he could be positioned to succeed Netanyahu. That would give political expression to the enormous social changes taking place in the past several years, in light of the growing integration of religious Zionists into areas that were previously barred to them.
He can expect to face a left that is united, having applied the lessons of its current fragmented state. Overall, we can expect to see in the next election campaign the full flowering of the buds that emerged in this one. Despite the enormous amount of Internet activity, technological advances have not yet played a decisive role in influencing the vote. That will probably not be the case the next time around, when other parties will likely adopt the methods used by Eldad Yaniv's Eretz Chadash. They have proved themselves, whether or not Yaniv ends up in the Knesset.
Israeli Arabs, who have had it with the community's traditional leadership, are also waking up. Developments such as Da’am Workers Party, which aspire to Arab-Jewish cooperation without reference to the Palestinian issue, will gain strength.
The significance of this election, then, is in laying the foundations for future critical decisions. We have four years - it is likely that the coalition will survive for less than that - to deliberate over the path we want Israel to take into its 70th year, a number with symbolic significance in Jewish history.