TEL AVIV // It was a political slap in the face for Benjamin Netanyahu.
The right-wing Israeli prime minister may have gained a third term as prime minister in Tuesday's election after his Likud party and its ultranationalist electoral ticket partner won the highest number of seats - 31 - in Israel's 120-member parliament.
However, the Israeli leader has emerged politically weakened because yesterday's near-final tally showed that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu together lost a quarter of the seats that the two parties hold in Israel's outgoing parliament. The result was also significantly lower than the 45 seats they had expected when announcing their union last year.
The outcome was worse for Mr Netanyahu because - contrary to predictions that Israeli politics were swinging irrevocably rightward - the camp of the right, and the combined one of the centre and left, seemed to unexpectedly win an equal number of seats.
That could place Mr Netanyahu in a quagmire, experts said. Namely, he may have to moderate his hard-line stance on issues like settlements and the Palestinians to draw centrist parties to his government and form a large coalition, while risking the ire of his pro-settler political and financial backers, analysts said.
At the same time, the conflict with the Palestinians is likely to be low on the next government's agenda as many voters' surprisingly high support for centrist parties reflected a discontent more about economic issues and the power of the ultra-Orthodox than about the deadlocked peace process, according to experts.
Israeli media was flooded with condemnation of Mr Netanyahu yesterday, with the liberal Haaretz newspaper labelling him a "man of the past", and a columnist for the right-leaning NRG news website predicting he'll become "the weakest premier in the country's history".
Gabriel Weimann, a professor of political science at Haifa University, said: "It was a huge loss for Netanyahu. He not only lost much of his support base, but he lost the possibility of creating a stable coalition from a strengthened position."
The premier's mistakes, analysts said, ranged from underestimating growing dissatisfaction over the high cost of living in the country to losing some of the Likud's more moderate voters by joining forces with the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman in November.
Mr Netanyahu is likely to begin intensive negotiations with potential political partners within a week, when he is expected to be tapped by the Israeli president to form a coalition. He will then have up to six weeks to cobble together a government.
Analysts said his next coalition will probably include the unexpected political star of the elections, Yair Lapid, the 49-year-old head of the centrist There is a Future party and a popular ex-television news anchor and newspaper columnist. The movement of Mr Lapid, the son of a prominent former justice minister with a fiercely anti-religious agenda, garnered 19 parliamentary seats and became the second-biggest party after Likud.
Experts said Mr Lapid, who campaigned on ending army draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and on mitigating economic hardships, is likely to play a key role in the upcoming coalition negotiations, possibly forcing Mr Netanyahu to abandon his traditional right-wing and ultrareligious political allies in favour of a more moderate government. Yesterday, Mr Lapid called for "as broad a government as possible" that would include "moderate forces from the left and right".
Despite being considered a centrist who favours negotiations with the Palestinians, Mr Lapid's debut in the political arena is not expected to help reignite deadlocked peace talks.
After all, the upstart politician has mostly ignored Israeli-Palestinian ties during his campaign. In a rare statement on the issue, he said in October that Israel's aim with the peace talks should be "a divorce agreement we can live with." However, he pointedly made that statement during a campaign speech at the contentious Jewish settlement of Ariel, located deep inside the West Bank, suggesting his possible support for Israel retaining that community in a peace pact.
Israel insists Ariel is one of five so-called major settlement blocs it plans to keep under any peace pact, but the Palestinians have indicated they would oppose the Israeli annexation of Ariel.
The likelihood that Mr Netanyahu may also add the far-right Jewish Home party to his next government would also make a settlement with the Palestinians even less probable.
Jewish Home's leader, Naftali Bennett, considered an election winner as well by grabbing votes from disgruntled Likud supporters and garnering 11 seats for his party, rejects Palestinian statehood and advocates for an Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank.
Palestinian officials yesterday expressed pessimism about a possible restart of peace negotiations with the next Israeli government despite the better-than-expected results of the centre and left.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah: "I don't see a peace coalition or a peace camp emerging now and revitalising itself."