JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have squeezed by a surprisingly tight election and looks likely to form Israel's next government. But his hold on power is more tenuous than ever before.
Exit polls indicate that the prime minister has lost up to 25 percent of his seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
Even with the right-wing Netanyahu at its helm, the next government will necessarily have to reflect the influence of Yair Lapid, a centrist, secular, photogenic former journalist and the great surprise of these elections. He now leads Israel's new second-largest party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future).
In defiance of almost every forecast, the next coalition government of Israel will in all likelihood be significantly less beholden to right-wing hardliners than the current one. Based on a fragmented political mandate and reliant on inexperienced new faces, many predict it will be fragile and short-lasting.
As exit polls revealed Netanyahu's chute, one Israeli political analyst referred to the elections of 2013 as the pollsters' Day of Atonement. Israel, it appears, is in dire need of a local Nate Silver.
Netanyahu, who now seems destined to end up with 31 to 33 seats out of the 120-seat parliament, will lead the largest faction in the house. But more than anything else, the initial results indicate a wide and deep repudiation of the prime minister.
Almost all pre-electoral conjectures foresaw a stronger Netanyahu — and, almost universally, a hard-right turn to Israel's political scene.
The three-month electoral season was almost universally referred to as a "yawn," seemingly failing to draw the passions of the people.
Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide and orthodox Jewish high-tech millionaire was seen as a standout story of the election, drawing increasingly extremist right-wing voters from the prime minister.
But by 10 p.m. on Election Day, as the first exit polls were announced, each of these chestnuts was proven false.
The turnout of more than 66 percent was higher than that of every Israeli election since 1999, and sectors considered soft, such as youth and Arabs, proved sturdy voters.
Despite the almost inevitability that Netanyahu will be called upon to form the next government, Netanyahu, who now represents a joint list holding 42 Knesset seats, was seen to be the night's big loser.
The upstart surprise was not Bennett, who gained a respectable vote, but Yair Lapid, who entered politics barely 12 months ago and has now emerged as the leader of the country's new political arbiter, with 20 seats projected in parliament.
It is Lapid who will now have a determining role is deciding the tenor and the direction of a new government, and not the extreme right or the Jewish religious parties, as was widely predicted.
In a midnight speech, Labor party leader Shelly Yechimovich announced "plans to establish a government without Benjamin Netanyahu" to loud cheers, though the prospects seem dim.
Moreover, the leftwing social democratic party, Meretz, more than doubled its seats, from its current 3 to a projected 7. Shas, the ultra-orthodox party that has held onto the Interior Ministry with almost a stranglehold for the past two decades suffered a rout that will leave it outside of any possible coalition.
Kadima, the party established by former prime minister Ariel Sharon when he exited the Likud a decade ago and the largest party in the current Knesset, was completely wiped out, failing to garner enough votes to gain even a single seat.
Avigdor Lieberman, the hard line foreign minister who joined his party with Netanyahu's and was almost immediately forced to resign when faced with an indictment on corruption charges — and who had bombastically predicted a victory of "at least 42 seats! Record me!" — was reduced almost to a spectral presence on election night.
The day augured bright, with temperatures reaching 85 degrees in a strangely summery Tel Aviv. Belying conventional wisdom that held that Israelis were bored by this particular vote, enthusiastic crowds were seen at polling places from the early morning. There were lines of up to an hour long at numerous polls.
By mid-afternoon, it became clear that, as one left-wing activist emerging from having voted, said, "No one has any idea what is going on, but it's definitely not what everyone thought."
By early evening observers began to have an idea of what was taking place, but laws prohibiting political pronouncements prevented anyone from speaking out. Asked where she was on a panic scale from 1 to 10, the legendary pollster Mina Tzemach answered "ten minus."
"I can tell you there will be surprises," she said.
True enough. None of the polls had predicted a Lapid triumph of the magnitude exit polls indicated.
Chen Lipman, 41, a Labor party supporter in Tel Aviv said he encountered Lapid adherents "all day long, everywhere," yet still expressed "shock" at the results.
In Jerusalem, Israel's most conservative major city, loud applause and howls of joy greeted the exit polls in Meretz's headquarters. About the Likud loss, one woman commented "it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch!"
Interviewed on radio, Efrat Lapid, Yair's sister, proclaimed "a return to sanity."