What's remarkable here is not that Israelis voted for left-leaning parties. After all, it's a country that was founded upon leftist principles. What's remarkable is that Israelis voted for these left-leaning parties now.
Israel's security challenges are as daunting as they have ever been. Iran threatens to build a nuclear weapon and could have enough uranium to produce one in little more than a year. The Arab Spring has led to the rise of new Islamist governments that spew invective at the Jewish state, casting doubt on the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and understandings that have yielded quiet borders for years. Hamas and Hezbollah are stockpiling rockets in Gaza and Lebanon, preparing for the next round of war. And Israel's supposed partner for peace, the Palestinian Authority, refused to negotiate even when Netanyahu begrudgingly imposed a settlement freeze. Relations between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, who just won a second term in office, have been chilly if not downright icy.
In other words, the winds of war are blowing. If ever there were a time that Israel would be expected to prefer a cabinet of right-wingers, it would be now.
Yet Lapid's meteoric rise, along with a formidable Labor presence in the next Knesset, indicates that many Israelis are not prepared to jump headlong into conflict. Indeed, Lapid's party, Yesh Atid, means "There is a future." And his secular, centrist message reportedly resonated among younger voters.
But there's another explanation for Lapid's rise. Israel is suffering from a leadership deficit: The country may not have voted for him as much as it voted against their stagnant political class. Many of the same politicians have represented their parties for years, preventing new ideas from entering the political marketplace. At the risk of sounding like Thomas Friedman, my Israeli cab driver explained, "There was no one good to vote for. So, the public voted for someone new."
Or, as celebrated Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi recently noted in Tablet magazine, "I voted for Yair [Lapid] because, as a centrist Israeli, I have no other political home."
Whatever their reasons, the Israeli public has just sent an important message to its leadership. There will be an estimated 47 new members of the next Knesset, an astonishing turnover rate. At the forefront of these new faces will be Lapid, who could end up as foreign minister, or even defense minister, in a new government.
So much for Israel's hard right turn.