By John Rapley
Over the last few decades, Israeli politics seemed to be in an inexorable rightward drift. The coalition of western Jews that had dominated the country's politics at its formation, and who leaned left, steadily declined relative to the swelling Sephardic population.
The Sephardim, or Oriental Jews, favoured religious parties and the right-wing populist Likud. Then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a tide of Russian Jews arrived who supported hard-line nationalist parties. Finally, with Orthodox Jews having more children than the rest of the population, the die of an ever more right-wing Israel seemed cast.
Last week's election was expected to continue this trend, returning Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to office with an increased majority. Although the official result won't be announced until later this week, the unofficial results provided a shock. The right lost ground and a new centre emerged.
Leading this surge is a new party called Yesh Atid ('There Is A Future'). Led by a former television journalist named Yair Lapid, the party grew out of a 2011 wave of middle-class protests against worsening economic conditions and rising inequality. Like the earlier Arab Spring, or the Occupation movement that swept many countries at the same time, this protest was led by young, tech-savvy Israelis using social media to communicate and organise.
And it appears that Mr Netanyahu, normally one of the wiliest political operators around, misunderstood the phenomenon. He paid less attention to the issue than it merited. When the protests died down, he no doubt concluded the worst had passed. But the worst had, in fact, simply abandoned the encampments for the ballot boxes, and punished his complacency harshly.
Mr Netanyahu's governing Likud-Beiteinu alliance was returned as the largest faction in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, but with barely a third of the seats.
Still, Mr Netanyahu is nothing if not a political survivor. He will lick his wounds and, dealing with the material before him, get on with the business of forming a government. When adding the conservative-leaning religious parties to the total, the right won just over half the seats in the Knesset, so he could form a right-wing government.
But he'd probably prefer not to. The prime minister does not want to leave his government captive to any one party. Since any one of the religious parties could topple his government by withdrawing, he'd be at their mercy. Ideally, Mr Netanyahu would like to start with the support of about two-thirds of the MKs (members of the Knesset). That way, no one coalition partner would be in a position to dictate policy to him.
That makes it more likely that he will try to form a centre-right government. Yesh Atid will likely be a crucial player. While Mr Netanyahu campaigned on a platform of strong leadership - a reminder that he was ready to take on Israel's arch-foe Iran, and any other comers for that matter - Mr Lapid eschewed foreign policy during the campaign. He wants Israel to become a normal state: one that is not defined by existential concerns, and instead devotes itself to bettering conditions for its people.
FOCUS ON DOMESTIC ISSUES
It's difficult to say what impact this election will have on Israel's foreign policy. Some say that a sharper focus on domestic issues will curtail the settlement building in occupied territories which Mr Netanyahu loves to promote, and which complicates relations with Palestinians. Equally, Mr Netanyahu's fixation on Iran's imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons may have to abate somewhat. That would certainly appear to be the hope in the Obama administration, Israel's principal ally, with whom relations have grown frosty.
Yet, other analysts indicate that precisely because Yesh Atid is focused on domestic issues, it will leave the foreign portfolio in his hands, giving him even more freedom of manoeuvre. Mr Netanyahu might be more dovish at home, more hawkish abroad.
Either way, though it will take a while for its contours to become clear, a new political paradigm seems to be developing in Israel.
John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com