In the end, the Israeli election wasn’t even close — and certainly not in the way that analysts expected. For the past week, media outlets in the US had written Benjamin Netanyahu’s political obituary, insisting that Likud and the Right had collapsed, and looked forward to a Left coalition that would align better with Barack Obama. Instead, Netanyahu scored a decisive victory, taking 30 seats as the Right ran to an easy majority in the new Knesset:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was the clear winner in Tuesday’s election, a near-final tally showed early Wednesday morning, defeating the Zionist Union by a margin of some six seats.

That margin was far more decisive than TV exit polls had predicted when polling booths closed at 10 p.m. on Tuesday. All three TV polls had put Likud and Zionist Union neck-and-neck at 27 seats, albeit with Netanyahu better-placed to form a coalition.

On the basis of those TV polls, Netanyahu hailed a Likud victory, though Herzog initially refused to concede. As counting proceeded through the night, however, the Likud opened a growing margin of victory.

By 6 a.m., with some 99% of votes counted, the Central Elections Committee was indicating a dramatic victory for Netanyahu, with the Likud heading for 30 seats, compared to Zionist Union’s 24 seats.

The Washington Post’s William Booth acknowledges that a lot of people got this wrong, and wonders why:

Before the vote, pundits were beginning to write the first drafts of Netan­yahu’s political obituary. Reporters asked him in interviews what he planned to do in retirement.

But in the past five days, Netan­yahu took to the airwaves, warning repeatedly that Herzog and the left were going to turn over land to the Palestinians and divide Jerusalem, which both Israel and Palestinians claim as their capital.

It was unclear whether Israeli pollsters just got it wrong or could not keep up with fast-moving events. The last opinion polls on Friday suggested that Netanyahu was losing. Exit polls Tuesday night said it was a tie. The final vote count showed that Netanyahu had won by a wide margin.

Leading pollster Avi Degani, president of the Geocartography Knowledge Group, said Wednesday that there were several reasons for the disparity.

“We are not looking for excuses, but in Israel we are always dealing with 20 percent of the voters who have not made a decision before the election and you just do not know who they will vote for,” he said.

That sounds like a pretty good argument for keeping the powder dry on questions about retirement plans until after the vote count. Sky News offers a slightly more bitter explanation:

That’s certainly another view, and one likely to be adopted by those disappointed in the results. However, the Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman writes that the real difference may have been Netanyahu’s appeal to the “second Israel,” and his fight against the elites:

The Ashkenazi immigrants from Eastern Europe were seen as having an unfair advantage over their Sephardic counterparts from North Africa and the Middle East. The people who are called “the second Israel” have complained since then that the “elites” in the Israeli Left, the media and academia have discriminated against them.

The “second Israel” did not like the the way the media seemed to be deposing of Netanyahu and bringing to power the Left under the leadership of Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who were raised not far from each other in North Tel Aviv and are both the children of former Knesset members. …

Many who considered staying home, or voting for one of the Likud’s satellite parties, hurried to the polling stations to cast ballots for Likud. People who have not voted in years – or at least not for Likud – felt the need to save Israel from the Left, Iran and from a hostile international community.

The challenge for Netanyahu will likely be more on the domestic economy rather than international relations. The US will press Netanyahu to back down from his newly announced opposition to a two-state solution, but the Obama administration has torched that relationship over the last year. They were hoping to get another PM to improve their standing at home on Israel, but now it’s clear that Netanyahu will outlast Obama and John Kerry. It’s also clear that Israelis aren’t terribly keen on two-state solutions while Hamas runs Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas keeps pledging unity governments with them, either. Otherwise, Netanyahu’s final pitch wouldn’t have resulted in his surprising win last night.

Where does this leave the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, then? In a shambles, but it’s been that way for decades, and it wasn’t going anywhere with Obama and Kerry any more than it was with George Bush and Condoleezza Rice. The problem still remains that one side wants peace, and the other side wants all the land and the Jews pushed out into the Mediterranean. When that changes and both sides want peaceful and permanent coexistence, then the problem will find an easy solution.

In the meantime, the White House will have to find a way to reach out to Netanyahu if it wants to have any influence at all in Israel before the end of Obama’s term. Don’t expect Netanyahu to make it easy, either.