Ariel Sharon always claimed that his achievement in doubling the Likud's Knesset representation from 19 seats to 38 in the last Knesset was a success for what he saw as his pragmatism - the readiness for "painful compromise," the robust alliance with the Bush administration. Binyamin Netanyahu, his colleague-rival, insisted the contrary: that the public had backed the Likud because of its traditional opposition to Palestinian statehood. In terms of their impact on the Likud, the 2006 elections are a vindication of Sharon - the stricken prime minister, the man who so conspicuously wasn't there for this campaign. Sharon, it appears, didn't merely break away from the Likud with Kadima. He broke the Likud. And the results are a stinging rejection of Netanyahu - the politician and the ideology. Convinced of the rightness of his approach - grappling with a Hamas government by staying put in Judea and Samaria - Netanyahu patently failed to persuade anything like a sufficient proportion of the electorate of his wisdom. Voters apparently fled to Kadima, to Israel Beiteinu, to Shas, to the Pensioners' Party. Some may even have fled to a Labor Party that fared far better than had been anticipated just a few weeks ago. Anything but stay with the Likud. Tellingly, they did not flee in significant numbers to the National Union-National Religious Party alliance. The Likud-NRP-NU camp mustered barely one in six of the seats in the Knesset. The key for Ehud Olmert was to be able to clear the 61-seat hurdle in the 120-member parliament solely with like-minded potential allies. The Tuesday night exit polls suggested he would. The Wednesday results show the contrary. With him at its helm, Kadima has fared far less well than it might have done under Sharon. On Tuesday night, the exit poll arithmetic looked comfortable for the man who inherited the prime ministership three months ago. The reality is less so. Olmert may or may not ultimately bring Labor, Meretz and the Pensioners all into his coalition; they might be his most amenable partners. Shas wants to sit in the government. So, too, does United Torah Judaism. Israel Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman has said time and again that he sees his place at the cabinet table. But with Kadima having faded so dramatically in the campaign's final weeks, Olmert is much less well-placed than he would have hoped to drive powerful coalition bargains. The relatively low election turnout is disappointing and dismaying. It points to disgruntlement, indifference, alienation. The extraordinary success of the Gil Pensioners' Party also highlights public protest against a particular aspect of government and national priorities - but this was the best of protests, a constructive, democratic expression of anguish that will now, through Knesset representation, likely produce positive change. That so many people chose to stay away is baffling. The stakes, after all, could hardly have been higher. We voted on the day that the Palestinian Legislative Council approved a Hamas government, on the day a Katyusha was fired from Gaza into Israel for the first time. The very size of the country was up for grabs. Sharon's absence may well have been a factor in the low turnout. And those who did bother to cast their ballots did not provide the decisive mandate Olmert sought for what he has taken to calling "convergence." At the same time, however, they gave no mandate either for the maintenance of Jewish settlement throughout the West Bank. It is a division that Israeli society will struggle to smoothly absorb.