Israeli voters cast centrist former TV anchor and political novice in role of kingmaker
Yair Lapid celebrates with members of his "Yesh Atid" party in Tel-Aviv, early Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. The party, formed just over a year ago, out did forecasts by far and are predicted to capture as many as 19 seats, becoming parliament's second-largest party, after Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu bloc, which won 31, according to the exit polls. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)The Associated Press
Yair Lapid gestures as he delivers a speech at his "Yesh Atid" party in Tel-Aviv, early Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. The party, formed just over a year ago, out did forecasts by far and are predicted to capture as many as 19 seats, becoming parliament's second-largest party, after Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu bloc, which won 31, according to the exit polls. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)The Associated Press
JERUSALEM – Israel's election has put a suave former TV news anchor and political novice in the role of kingmaker, and he has signaled he would use his power to try to move hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's next government to more centrist positions on Mideast peacemaking.
Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid (There is a Future) emerged as the second-largest party in Israel's parliament after the prime minister's bloc, giving the 49-year-old former journalist unexpectedly strong leverage in upcoming coalition negotiations. A nearly complete vote count early Wednesday showed a deadlock between Netanyahu's hawkish bloc and the center-left camp.
Lapid told cheering supporters after Tuesday's election that he wants a broad alliance of moderates, suggesting he would try to prod Netanyahu to abandon his traditional right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies.
But that might be tough in Israel's cluttered political landscape of small parties with sharp ideological differences. Veteran political commentators were left scratching their heads when trying to come up with scenarios for a stable Netanyahu-led coalition.
With 99.8 percent of votes counted, according to media reports, Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu electoral bloc won 31 seats in the 120-member parliament, remaining the largest party, but down from 42 in the 2009 election. Lapid's party won 19 seats, followed by 15 for the centrist Labor, 11 for the ultra-Orthodox Shas and 11 for the pro-settler Jewish Home.
Israeli voters do not directly elect the prime minister — that depends instead on post-election negotiations in which the party leader who has the best chance of putting together a majority coalition in the newly-chosen parliament is given an opportunity to do so, offering both Cabinet posts and policy concessions to other blocs.
That person will have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If successful, he or she becomes prime minister. In the unlikely scenario that he or she is not successful, another party is chosen to try.
Although the blocs appear evenly split, Netanyahu would likely get the first shot at trying to form a coalition government, because the center-left bloc draws 12 of its parliamentary seats from Arab parties that traditionally neither have been asked nor sought to join coalitions.
With the blocs tied, Netanyahu will need Lapid in any constellation.
Lapid, in turn, called for "as broad a government as possible" that would include "moderate forces from the left and right," but leaving unclear which partners he prefers.
Lapid is a member of Tel Aviv's secular elite, the son of a former Cabinet minister and one of Israel's best-known faces, yet has portrayed himself as an average Israeli and champion of a middle class struggling to make ends meet.
During the campaign, he largely focused on domestic concerns, such as improving the education system, offering more affordable housing and ending blanket military draft exemptions and government stipends for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
He has said little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for a resumption of peace talks that were frozen during Netanyahu's term, but also insisting Israel keep war-won east Jerusalem. Palestinians claim the eastern sector for a future capital, and would be unlikely to agree to an accord without shared sovereignty in the holy city.
Ofer Shelah, a leading member in Lapid's party, said easing the burden on the middle class is a key demand, but that resuming talks with the Palestinians is also important. "We will insist on this with the same determination," Shelah said.
Such demands could place Netanyahu in a difficult bind. The Israeli leader's Likud, traditionally hawkish, became even more hard-line and pro-settlement after party primaries earlier this year and would likely balk at a government it deems too centrist.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he would only return to talks on the terms of a Palestinian state if Netanyahu freezes construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967, along with the Gaza Strip.
Some 560,000 Israelis already live in areas they Palestinians want for their state, and Netanyahu has refused to halt construction. Instead, construction began on nearly 6,900 settlement apartments during his term, and thousands more housing units are in various stages of construction.
Lapid noted Wednesday that "we are facing a world that is liable to ostracize us because of the deadlock in the peace process," but it was not clear if he would insist on a construction freeze as a condition for joining the coalition.
Instead, he could try to promote his domestic agenda, such as ending special privileges — notably draft exemptions — for the ultra-Orthodox. This could mean keeping ultra-Orthodox parties out of the coalition, but bringing in the pro-settler Jewish Home, which surged in Tuesday's vote and draws much of its strength from the modern Orthodox community.
Jewish Home, led by former army commando and high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, like Lapid seeks a more equitable military draft. Yet Jewish Home's call to annex 60 percent of the West Bank and prevent the creation of a Palestinian state appears to clash with Lapid's position.
In a sign of Lapid's new rock star status, TV stations opted for split screens when both he and Netanyahu began addressing their supporters at the same time in different locations early Wednesday. The stations switched back and forth, torn over whose words were more important, and only after a while settled on Netanyahu and his claim of victory.
Lapid's new political leverage could produce a more moderate Israeli government, but it's not clear if that would be enough to end the paralysis in Mideast peace efforts.
In an interview last week, Lapid told The Associated Press he would not be a fig leaf in an extremist government and would make firm demands for joining, including returning to peace talks.
"I think it is crucial that we take the path of being part of the Western, civilized world and the international community," he said at the time.
Under Netanyahu, Israel has become more isolated internationally, and President Barack Obama has signaled increasing displeasure with the prime minister's settlement policies.