Binyamin Netanyahu, the election’s technical winner, is in fact its major loser.

Yes, there are other losers. Shaul Mofaz, until several months ago an aspiring prime minister, is now officially a has-been. Tzipi Livni pushed her luck and was exposed as a political non-starter. Labor’s inability to emerge as the second-largest party is also a failure. And on a smaller scale, Arye Deri failed in his quest to bring Shas more mandates than his in-party rival, Eli Yishai.

Still, all these failures pale compared to Netanyahu’s loss of what initially counts as one-quarter of the combined votes that he and his ally, Avigdor Liberman, garnered in the previous election.

The cause of this flight is clear. Netanyahu ignored the Center. Ever since his speech endorsing a two-state solution in 2009, he ingratiated his right flank and disregarded the political mainstream, assuming rightly that Kadima was a passing phenomenon, and wrongly that its voters would eventually fall in his lap.

At the same time, Netanyahu never bothered intellectually dialoguing with his “natural” partners in order to truly explore their minds. Had he done that, he would have concluded that he had a lot less in common with the Likud’s Moshe Feiglin and Bayit Yehudi’s Orit Struck than with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Rabbi Shai Piron.

Now Kadima is dead, but its message – that a critical mass of Israelis want pragmatism on all fronts – is alive and well.

Netanyahu can therefore now be expected first of all to create an axis with Lapid, and only then to add more partners to that combination.

Lapid is clearly the election’s big winner, having stolen Naftali Bennett’s thunder.

Talk of Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi emerging as the secondlargest party proved unfounded.

In fact, with all due respect to his accomplishments, it is no game-changer. Moreover, Bennett’s effort to portray his party as suitable for a broad non-observant following has failed. The 12 seats currently forecast for him are merely what the historic National Religious Party used to win until 1977. Restoring that figure to the party’s latest incarnation is a respectable feat that does not represent a new trend in Israeli politics.

Lapid’s accomplishment, by contrast, shows that the upper middle class, which constitutes his electoral backbone, remains solid, just like it was in the days of his father, Tommy Lapid, who won only 15 seats, and then in the days of Kadima. This electorate went to the polls with a purely domestic agenda in mind, which overshadowed Bennett’s “Greater Israel” agenda on the one hand, and Livni’s “peace in our time” message in the other.

Now Netanyahu has three choices: Ignore reality and stick to his historic allies in the “national camp”; seek a coalition with Lapid, Bennett and Livni; or seek a secular coalition with Lapid and Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich that will draft legislation for political reform.

Netanyahu is not likely to immediately seek the latter option. However, several days of negotiation with his plethora of newly emboldened potential partners might make him change his mind.

The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. www.middleisrael.com •

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