Another election, another incumbent returned, but this time most unconvincingly. Ehud Olmert, acting prime minister since Ariel Sharon’s stroke in January, is the only possible candidate to form a new government following Tuesday’s Israeli election. But his Kadima party performed below expectations, winning only 22% of the vote and 28 seats.

Even in alliance with the Labor party, Olmert will only have 48 seats in the new Knesset (parliament) – 13 short of a majority. He will need to pick up extra numbers from small parties to form a government.

More importantly, Kadima and Labor will need each other even more than they thought. Israeli politics may settle down in a new alignment where Kadima takes the place of Likud as the mainstream party on the Right, but it’s not there yet. Kadima is still taking most of its votes from the centre, particularly the old liberal party, Shinui, which has almost disintegrated following a split.

The majority of the Israeli electorate is moderate, but the Right has moved further right. Likud, now led by Benjamin Netanyahu, rebelled against Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but in some people’s eyes even Netanyahu is too moderate. Likud declined from 38 seats to 11, losing ground both to Kadima and to its competitor on the Right, Yisrael Beitenu, which leans towards ethnic cleansing – the expulsion of the Palestinians.

Olmert and Labor’s Amir Peretz, on the other hand, are both committed to peace, although they have rather different ideas about how to pursue it. Peretz wants negotiations; Olmert plans unilateral action. The election of a Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority has helped to obscure that difference; in an election atmosphere, even Labor would not risk being seen to advocate talking to Hamas.

But some sort of talking will have to take place one day, and with elections on both sides now out of the way there is some hope that posturing may give way to realism.