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Netanyahu leads Israel vote but centrists win big

By AFP - Jan 24,2013 - Last updated at Jan 24,2013

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, stung by a centrist electoral surge, pledged Wednesday to seek a broad coalition focused on socio-economic issues, but faced new international pressure on the peace process.

After a bruising election that saw the centrist Yesh Atid Party win a surprise second place, Netanyahu said the Israeli electorate had sent a “clear message”.

“The Israeli public wants me... to put together a government which will include three big changes internally: A greater sharing of the burden [of military service], affordable housing and changes in the system of government,” he said in brief remarks broadcast on Wednesday afternoon.

Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud won 31 seats on a joint list with the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu of ex-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, but the Yesh Atid Party, led by former journalist Yair Lapid, claimed second place.

In a nod to the shock showing, Netanyahu said he would try to form “a government which is as broad as possible”.

Yesh Atid’s performance, just nine months after its creation, has turned Lapid into Israel’s newest political star.

But it is a blow for Netanyahu, who had sought a bullet-proof rightwing majority that would give him freedom to manoeuvre on key foreign policy issues including Iran’s nuclear programme and peace with the Palestinians.

Lapid’s campaign emphasised economic reform and universal military service, but his party also favours negotiations with the Palestinians, and could force Netanyahu to moderate his economic policy and take a new line on peace talks.

On Wednesday night, Lapid indicated he would cooperate with the premier in building a new coalition.

“I’ve heard talk of an [anti-Netanyahu] bloc,” Lapid said. “I suggest removing that from the table. There will not be a bloc; that will not happen.”

He expressed satisfaction with hearing the “prime minister take on board everything we have been saying for the past year about equality and the need to protect the middle class and help it with housing and education”.

‘We must work together’

“The outcome of the election is clear: We must work together,” Lapid said.

Coalition negotiations are expected to be delicate, particularly as the Knesset’s 120 seats are evenly split between the rightwing and centre-left blocs, and Netanyahu is likely to reach across the aisle to Lapid.

“There is no reasonable government — meaning none that Netanyahu could head without becoming an international pariah — without Lapid,” analyst Yossi Vertner wrote in the Haaretz daily.

“Thus Lapid has become the most important player in the political system,” he said.

With 99.5 per cent of the votes counted, Israel’s electoral committee said the joint Likud-Beiteinu had won 31 seats, while the far-right national religious Jewish Home claimed 11, as did the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas.

The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction won seven seats, bringing the bloc’s total to 60.

On the centre-left side, Yesh Atid came away with 19 seats, ahead of the centre-left Labour Party, which won 15.

The HaTnuah faction of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni carried six seats, as did the leftwing Meretz, while Livni’s onetime party Kadima won just two.

Combined, the three Arab-Israeli parties that crossed the electoral threshold to make a showing in the parliament, won 12 seats, giving the centre-left 60 seats as well.

The results mirrored exit polls released on Tuesday that prompted Netanyahu to address Lapid, telling him: “We have an opportunity to do great things for Israel. The election campaign is behind us, and we can now focus on action for the benefit of all of Israel.”

Lapid also called for a broad government, which he said would “include moderate elements from the left and the right to bring about real change”.

Speaking to Israeli public radio on Wednesday, Likud member and Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said he believed such a coalition would be best equipped to deal with “the Iranian issue, the Arab Spring and the Islamist Winter”.

Netanyahu has said his new government’s top priority will be preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but domestic challenges will be no less pressing.

Taming a larger-than-expected deficit will also be a priority, but it may be hard for parties like Yesh Atid, which campaigned on the plight of the middle class, to stomach tough austerity measures.

Israel has come under increasing pressure to seek renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius repeating that call on Wednesday.

But the Palestinians expressed caution over Lapid’s showing.

“I don’t see a peace coalition or a peace camp emerging now and revitalising itself,” Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi told reporters.

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