The presidential election ended as everyone had predicted, with a victory for the popular Reuven Rivlin.

The win for the 74-year-old former Knesset speaker was immediately touted as a sign that the race was ultimately an apolitical one.

Praised by the far right and far left, and drawing votes from Jewish Home and Meretz, Arab MKs and ultra-Orthodox ones, Rivlin showed that he was a unifier. It was a moment when the Knesset, the representatives of the people, rose above its narrow politics and elected the man that poll after poll showed was also the choice of most of Israel’s citizens.

It is a powerful, optimistic narrative, but it isn’t the one heard the day after the race in the halls of Israel’s parliament.

For Israel’s political class, Rivlin’s election is only the second-most significant outcome of the presidential race. While the nation was watching Rivlin cruise to victory, the country’s political class was focused on his challenger, on the candidacy of Hatnua MK Meir Sheetrit and the political earthquake that it signaled.

The surprise

On Monday night, every political analyst in the country went to sleep comfortable in the knowledge that the race would ultimately be between Dalia Itzik and Reuven Rivlin, two former Knesset speakers, two wily and experienced political operators, two candidates with discernible and powerful political camps.

Rivlin had the Likud rank-and-file, much of the right and all of the far right, along with a scattered but numerous group of supporters from across the political aisle, people who had come to respect the veteran lawmaker over the years.

Sheetrit’s ascent was not an accident. It was a carefully planned maneuver by an opposition that has shown a growing capacity to unite its disparate parts to cause trouble for the coalition

Itzik, on the other hand, was the candidate of Yisrael Beytenu, a handful of left-wing MKs who recalled her days as a Labor MK, and possibly also the parliament’s current and former Kadima lawmakers, including the two Kadima MKs Shaul Mofaz and Yisrael Hasson, and those who had gone to other parties, such as Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi. Itzik was also considered more likely than Rivlin to attract left-wing votes in the runoff.

That, at any rate, was the prediction of The Times of Israel. And it held up rather well.

In the first round of the voting, Rivlin got 44, Itzik 28, and outsider candidates Dalia Dorner and Dan Shechtman trailed far behind with 13 and 1 respectively.

That, broadly speaking, was the expected result – with one exception, the completely unexpected 33 first-round votes for Hatnua’s Meir Sheetrit.

The second-place finish for Sheetrit was a shock.

“We didn’t realize what was happening,” said one senior Likud lawmaker. “Then, by the time we understood, it was nearly too late.”

The Sheetrit deal

Sheetrit’s ascent from a distant fourth place in the five-candidate race was not an accident. It was a carefully planned and well-executed maneuver by an opposition that has shown a growing capacity to unite and mobilize its disparate parts to cause trouble for the coalition. (Parts of that “opposition,” to be sure, actually sit in the governing coalition.)

Presidential candidate Meir Sheetrit in the Knesset Tuesday, June 10, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Presidential candidate Meir Sheetrit in the Knesset Tuesday, June 10, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday night, when the outcome of the race was considered all but assured, two party leaders met at the sheva berachot post-wedding celebration of the daughter of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri. Hatnua chair Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Labor leader Isaac Herzog discussed the following day’s presidential race and the failure of the opposition to field a viable candidate.

Labor’s candidate, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, had quit after allegations of financial impropriety surfaced over the weekend. Former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner was a favorite on the far left, but could not win the votes from the ultra-Orthodox or center that would be required to defeat the right’s Rivlin. And Nobel laureate chemist Dan Shechtman had failed to build any meaningful support among lawmakers.

The only candidate left in the race with any chance of beating Rivlin, the leaders concluded, was Hatnua’s Sheetrit.

And so, as the night progressed, the three leaders – Deri was not opposed to the deal – set in motion the surprising upset of the race. Deri gathered together as many ultra-Orthodox votes as he could. Livni and Herzog mobilized the left and center, including MKs from the centrist coalition parties Yesh Atid and Hatnua.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri (right) and his predecessor Eli Yishai (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri (right) and his predecessor Eli Yishai (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The strategy was sound. Sheetrit, a former Likud MK, was nevertheless one of the right’s most centrist members. He actually abstained in many of the crucial votes during the 1990s that allowed the Oslo peace process to go forward; his party colleagues, needless to say, all voted against. As a Moroccan-born former mayor of an impoverished southern town, Sheetrit was also considered an easier sell than other candidates to the Sephardi-conscious Shas, socialist MKs in Labor and Hadash, and others.

The Sheetrit campaign also believed it could count on splintered loyalties within the ruling party. (In fact, a few Likud activists close to Netanyahu were seen inexplicably campaigning against Rivlin during the runoff round.)

The campaign worked, catapulting Sheetrit to a strong second-place finish in the first round and reshaping a race everyone had believed was already decided.

A new axis

It is hard to overestimate the significance of the new Livni-Herzog axis, especially after Tuesday’s stunning demonstration of the raw political power it could wield. The two leaders managed to deliver 33 votes for a candidate who had been polling, according to the best estimates, at barely 10 MKs. Most of those late-arriving MK supporters had shifted their votes from other candidates. In some cases, as with a handful of Shas and Labor MKs, these amounted to a last-minute abandonment of previous promises to other candidates, chiefly Dalia Itzik.

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog (Photo credit: Flash 90)

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog (Photo credit: Flash 90)

By advancing Sheetrit to the second round, the Livni-Herzog axis proved two things. First, that the right’s parliamentary majority is increasingly theoretical; it is so deeply mired in internal and often petty rivalries that it can scarcely withstand a concerted push from the opposition on something as fundamental as the presidential election. And second, that the campaign for the next parliamentary election, and the next government, is already underway.

One signal of the latter is the behavior of Shas. The party itself is divided between two camps, the MKs and rabbis who are loyal to party leader Aryeh Deri, and those who support former party leader Eli Yishai. This division is partly an ideological one. While both Deri and Yishai believe in the party’s ultra-Orthodox Sephardi identity, on security and diplomatic issues Yishai leans to the right and Deri, a former supporter of Oslo, to the left.

Shas’s 11 votes were supposed to divide along that left-right axis, with the three right-leaning votes in the Yishai camp going to Rivlin and Deri’s eight votes going to Itzik. There was even talk, including in The Times of Israel, of Haredi ballots being the deciding votes that elected Israel’s first female president.

But those plans were abandoned when the Sheetrit deal began to coalesce. Suddenly, Shas saw an opportunity to do something truly valuable with its votes: prove to the Likud, which had formed a coalition government without Haredi parties, that Haredi political power was not to be taken lightly.

And so Shas pivoted to Sheetrit in the first round, contributing to what was quickly being interpreted as a stunning upset.

Rivlin was still ahead at 44 votes in the first round, but saw with agonizing clarity that he was set to lose the race – since Sheetrit had won his 33 votes in a divided field. When Itzik quit the race, she recommended her former Kadima colleague Sheetrit over Rivlin, and urged MKs who had voted for her to give their votes to Sheetrit. Similarly, Dalia Dorner’s 13 votes, concentrated in the far-left, were considered more likely to go to Sheetrit than to the West Bank annexationist Rivlin.

MK Ze'ev Elkin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

MK Ze’ev Elkin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And so it was that Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who sat next to Rivlin for about 30 minutes in the immediate aftermath of the first vote, recalled the despondency in Rivlin’s voice ahead of the second round runoff.

“He was pessimistic. He told Sheetrit, ‘You’re the next president.’”

But by now the Likud had understood the danger it was in. The ruling party was on course to lose the presidency to a candidate from a six-seat faction in its own coalition.

“If Sheetrit had won, this government would have fallen,” explained Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin, a former coalition chairman and one of the Likud’s most influential political analysts.

Netanyahu began the day still opposed to a Rivlin presidency. By the time the race was over, the prime minister must have been thanking his lucky stars that Rivlin had won

It was Elkin’s job to speak to Shas in the last-minute effort to stem the Sheetrit surge.

Shas, Elkin discovered, was only too willing to switch to Rivlin. “I know for a fact that every single Haredi vote, from UTJ and Shas, went to Rivlin in the second round,” he said. “That wasn’t true in the first round.”

For Shas, victory lay in the simple fact that the Likud came begging. Its message to Netanyahu was clear: a coalition with centrist secularists such as Yesh Atid and Hatnua is less dependable than with us.

Netanyahu began the day still opposed to a Rivlin presidency. By the time the race was over, the prime minister must have been thanking his lucky stars that Rivlin had won. The victory spared him a vicious internal row in the Likud, where party leaders are still incensed at the “betrayal” of those who opposed Rivlin. And he was spared a decisive Herzog-Livni victory that would have suggested his own Likud had lost control of the government it ostensibly leads, and of the Knesset.

The political system is still picking up the pieces from Tuesday’s spectacular surprise. In the Likud, a growing chorus of leaders and activists is calling for rebuilding the internal cohesion and unity of the ruling party. On the left, the Sheetrit surge serves as a further demonstration of a new appetite for challenging the nearly two-decade dominance of the Likud-led right.

And for Shas, a new conversation has begun with the ruling coalition. The next government, Shas officials are vowing, won’t look like the current one.