At Kadima's post-vote get-together in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, the release of the 10 p.m. TV exit polls prompted jubilation. Supporters punched the air, raised both arms aloft, hugged and cheered and danced. They chanted their party leader's name, declaring her the next prime minister. For all the world, it looked as though they had just won an election.
Not so fast.
If they had taken even a few moments to look further down the exit polls' party rankings, they might have begun to wonder...
For long hours afterwards, days in some cases, right up to the present in still others - even as the final counted votes largely confirmed the accuracy of the TV surveys - many Kadima supporters continued to insist that the election was theirs. Hadn't Livni argued, earlier on that tumultuous election day, that whichever party turned out to be the biggest would have won the public's trust, "and no one can argue with that"?
Indeed, in many countries, no one could argue with that. In countries, that is, where being the biggest party means you've secured a majority of the seats in parliament. But not automatically, alas for Kadima, in Israel, where our biggest parties these days fail even to capture a quarter of the Knesset.
Kadima went misguidedly wild on election night because it didn't do the basic Israeli election math. It saw that it had won two more seats than the Likud in all three of the exit polls, and like the relative wet-behind-the-ears political newcomer that it is, concluded that this amounted to victory.
A cursory examination of the Labor and Meretz numbers told the real story: Yes, Kadima had registered a highly creditable election performance, but at the sole expense of parties further to its left. Its natural allies could not lift it anywhere near to a parliamentary majority. For Netanyahu's Likud, by contrast, if the polls were as unerring as they proved to be, the road to a narrow, right-wing "blocking" coalition was potentially treacherous but nonetheless open; he could prevent her becoming prime minister, but she could not stop him.
NOW THAT harsh reality is biting, however, Kadima has the opportunity to look beyond partisan interest - to look all the way down that list of Israelis' electoral preferences - to the wider national good. Out of near political deadlock, perhaps some positive momentum can emerge.
Netanyahu's campaign pledge to seek a wide Zionist government was not empty rhetoric. Heading back to the Prime Minister's Office a little less than a decade after we "spat him out" (in the words of one Hebrew daily's front page headline in that distant summer of 1999), Netanyahu has long since internalized that he can't be tied into extremist policies and can't afford to be perceived as an extremist - not by the international community and not by his own electorate.
Hence the murky manipulations that have kept Moshe Feiglin out of the new Likud Knesset intake, the refusal to formally rule out Palestinian statehood, the eschewing of "retake Gaza" demands during Operation Cast Lead. Hence, too, the insistent overtures to Kadima, and indeed to Labor. And hence, now, his immensely complex effort to draw in his natural allies from the "national camp" without committing himself to policies and positions that would render a partnership with Kadima impossible.
Ehud Barak's Cast Lead gains melted away in the heat of a Kadima campaign that urged Labor supporters to vote Tzipi to stop Bibi. And so Labor now sets off to attempt a revival in opposition. But Livni's list is packed with politicians bent on government, and while it would have been much sweeter for them under her premiership, the potential advantages of a unity alliance over a narrow, right-wing coalition are of genuine national significance.
A government headed by a relative hawk and a relative dove will be more persuasive in pressing the international case for tougher measures to thwart Iran's nuclear drive. And it will be more representative, and thus more comfortable, in formulating and implementing acutely sensitive policies should international pressure on Teheran prove insufficient.
A government headed by a relative hawk and a relative dove will be far more credible in explaining why prospects for substantive progress in dealings with the Palestinian Authority are bleak, far more widely supported in grappling with violence and terrorism, and far more capable of encouraging and responding to genuine opportunities for an accommodation. It could, one would also hope, work toward our so-needed consensus on settlement and territorial red-lines.
A Likud-Kadima pairing could foster agreement on economic policy at a time of financial crisis, marginalizing the demands of minor parties to which a narrow Likud-led coalition would be vulnerable.
A Likud-Kadima pairing might choose to bring Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu into government, but would rule out discriminatory demands of Israeli Arabs.
A Netanyahu-Livni partnership could even reform the electoral system.
AS TUESDAY'S results demonstrated yet again, we are a fragmented electorate, and remaking a system that ensures parliamentary representation for our diverse range of parties is a delicate business.
But pure proportional representation denies us accountability in the widest sense. We don't choose our Knesset candidates; the parties do. We often don't know their views. We can neither reward what we might consider their exemplary behavior on national or local issues, nor punish their failures.
Carefully conceived remedies are ready and waiting for implementation, notably the blueprint prepared two years ago by the Commission for Examination of the Structure of Governance, headed by the Hebrew University's Prof. Menachem Magidor. This prescribed that only 60 of the 120 Knesset seats be allocated through proportional representation, with the other 60 MKs chosen within 17 constituencies. It set clear-cut criteria for party primaries. It limited the cabinet to 18 ministers, and mandated that their appointment be vetted by a Knesset committee, with adequate, ongoing Knesset oversight of their work. It also proposed various measures designed to bolster government stability and efficiency, and to reduce corruption - a particularly poignant issue given the circumstances in which these elections were called.
NONE OF these potential benefits of a unity government will be realized, however, if the partners at the cabinet table are continually seeking exit strategies, awaiting the moment to bolt for their narrow advantage. What's needed here is stability of government and unity of vital national purpose.
Rocketed across the borders to which we have unilaterally withdrawn, unsuccessful in our efforts to negotiate compromise, Israelis circled the wagons in these elections, and empowered the political right and the political center, in that order. The cause and effect is there to see in hard numbers - in the marked shift rightward, for example, in Sderot and Beersheba and Ashkelon, where Netanyahu's predictions of Hamastan rocket fire were so bitterly vindicated.
It was, at first glance, a confusing election outcome. But when you look all the way down the list of the parties, do the arithmetic and internalize what the electorate demanded, it shouldn't be that difficult to discern what the responsible politicians' response should be.