Yair Lapid, Israel's new political sensation, disappointed many Israelis Wednesday night when he announced he would not oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forming a new government.
The leader of the party that surprisingly placed second in Tuesday's election rejected the idea that he should join with parties of the left to block Mr. Netanyahu from assembling a majority coalition. "That is just not going to happen," he told reporters outside his Tel Aviv home.
"The results of the election are clear and we have to work accordingly," he said, a reference to the 31 seats Mr. Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu alliance appears to have won in Tuesday's election, making it the leading bloc. Mr. Lapid's party, named Yesh Atid (There is a Future), captured 19 seats and has been widely sought as a coalition partner by both left- and right-wing leaderships.
Wednesday's surprise move will let Mr. Netanyahu breathe more easily – to a point. Mr. Lapid has considerable policy differences with the Prime Minister, on both foreign and domestic matters, and will likely demand the government's agenda reflect the most important of his positions.
Mr. Lapid, 49, is on record saying he favours a Palestinian state and a resumption of direct peace talks with the Palestinian leadership. Such a policy, should it be a condition of his joining a Netanyahu coalition, would create a quandary for the Prime Minister whose own Likud caucus overwhelmingly rejects the idea of a Palestinian state as does another of Mr. Netanhayu's possible coalition partners – Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party.
But Mr. Lapid has qualified his position on the Palestinians. He says he favours three large Israeli settlement blocs close to the Green Line being made part of Israel, and he rejects the idea of dividing Jerusalem.
"We are not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with," Mr. Lapid said in a speech unveiling his diplomatic program last October. Revealingly, he made the foreign-policy speech in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
Mr. Lapid and Mr. Netanyahu may not be that far apart after all.
On the topic of Iran, however, the subject dearest to Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lapid castigated the Prime Minister last year for trying to force the United States to set a deadline for attacking Iran in order to end its nuclear weapons program.
Mr. Netanyahu "thinks he can drag America to do what it doesn't want to do. He is leading Israel to war too soon, before it's necessary," Mr. Lapid said. "Like Netanyahu, I think that if we came to the point of no return, Israel would have to bomb, but there is still a lot left to do to avoid that."
It remains to be seen just how hard he will push for his foreign policies to be adopted. For Mr. Lapid, as for the Israeli middle class he represents, the biggest concerns are domestic ones.
"Yair campaigned on what mattered most to Israelis," said Amnon Dankner, former editor of the Maariv newspaper and a close friend of the Lapid family. He referred to the demand for lower housing costs, better education and an equal sharing of the burden of military service by all Jewish segments of society, including the ultra-Orthodox Haredim.
That Mr. Lapid, a former broadcast journalist, rose so quietly and so high, however, is a lesson in politics. There's no question but that he flew under the radar, largely because he had little media coverage.
"The media shunned him," said Mr. Dankner. "They didn't like the idea that one of their own was excelling in politics."
The shunning, however, worked to Mr. Lapid's advantage. While other party leaders were overexposed and made some damaging mistakes, Mr. Lapid conducted a clean, well-engineered campaign.
"It was like driving a Prius carefully and economically, compared to careering recklessly down the road in a huge SUV, like some of the other campaigns," said Mr. Dankner. "He got where he wanted to go, without any damage."
Even so, it was only in the final two weeks that Mr. Lapid went from also-ran to front-running challenger.
"Two weeks ago, he was polling at 10-12 seats," said pollster Rafi Smith, CEO of Smith Research. "Then everything changed."
Mr. Lapid was a big beneficiary of those who made or changed their choices late in the campaign. Mr. Smith said his exit polls Tuesday found three reasons.
Labour Party Leader Shelly Yacimovitch announced she would not serve in a Netanyahu government. "People didn't like this," Mr. Smith said. "They want someone inside the government wielding influence on their behalf."
Mr. Lapid never ruled out the idea of joining a Netanyahu government, Mr. Smith noted, and that netted him two or three seats from Labour.
Tzipi Livni, leader of the new Hatnua party, also erred, he said.
" 'Peace' became a bad word in the campaign – no one wanted to talk about it – but Livni talked of little else." Mr. Lapid, on the other hand, "rarely uttered the word."
"All his competitors were making mistakes," Mr. Smith said, "including Netanyahu."
The Prime Minister's strident attacks on Jewish Home leader Mr. Bennett upset a lot of Likud supporters, Mr. Smith explained. They turned against Mr. Netanyahu but couldn't bring themselves to support Mr. Bennett, whose party is quite extreme; so they turned to Mr. Lapid.
"These voters didn't perceive Lapid as a leftist, nor as an extremist," he said.
Will Mr. Lapid join a Netanyahu government? Yes, most who know him say, if his policy conditions are met.
And they may be. Commenting Wednesday on the Prime Minister's statements since the election, Mr. Lapid said he was "happy to learn the PM was talking about the equal distribution of burden," a reference to Mr. Lapid's favourite cause – getting the ultra-Orthodox into the army.