Netanyahu likely clings to job in Israel election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at his election campaign headquarters, Jan. 23, 2013 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Getty

Updated at 6:59 a.m. Eastern.

JERUSALEM Israel's parliamentary election ended Wednesday in a stunning deadlock between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line bloc and center-left rivals, forcing the badly weakened Israeli leader to scramble to cobble together a coalition of parties from both camps, despite dramatically different views on Mideast peacemaking and other polarizing issues.

Israeli media said that with 99.8 percent of votes counted on Wednesday morning, each bloc had 60 of parliament's 120 seats. Commentators said Netanyahu, who called early elections expecting easy victory, would be tapped to form the next government because the rival camp drew 12 of its 60 seats from Arab parties who've never joined a coalition.

That means the right-wing Netanyahu will have to form a coalition with moderates who support peace talks with the Palestinians, reports CBS Radio News correspondent Robert Berger. That could help Netanyahu improve ties with the U.S., but it could also mean he is only able to build an unstable coalition government that won't last.

A startlingly strong showing by a political newcomer, the centrist Yesh Atid party, turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt Netanyahu his surprise setback.

Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, a party headed by political newcomer Yair Lapid, is now Netanyahu's most likely partner. Lapid has said he would only join a government committed to sweeping economic changes and a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Addressing his supporters early Wednesday, Netanyahu vowed to form as broad a coalition as possible. He said the next government would be built on principles that include reforming the contentious system of granting draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and the pursuit of a "genuine peace" with the Palestinians. He did not elaborate, but the message seemed aimed at Lapid.

Shortly after the results were announced, Netanyahu called Lapid and offered to work together. "We have the opportunity to do great things together," Netanyahu was quoted as saying by Likud officials.

Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance was set to capture about 31 of the 120 seats, significantly fewer than the 42 it held in the outgoing parliament and below the forecasts of recent polls.

With his traditional allies of nationalist and religious parties, Netanyahu could put together a shaky majority of 61 seats, results showed. But it would be virtually impossible to keep such a narrow coalition intact, though it was possible he could take an additional seat or two as numbers trickled in throughout the night.

The results capped a lackluster campaign in which peacemaking with the Palestinians, traditionally the dominant issue in Israeli politics, was pushed aside. Netanyahu portrayed himself as the only candidate capable of leading Israel at a turbulent time, while the fragmented opposition targeted him on domestic economic issues.

Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, speaks to supporters
Israeli actor, journalist and author Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to supporters, Jan. 23, 2013 at his party headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Getty

Netanyahu's goal of a broader coalition will force him to make some difficult decisions. Concessions to Lapid, for instance, will alienate his religious allies. In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Lapid said he would not be a "fig leaf" for a hard-line, extremist agenda.

Lapid's performance was the biggest surprise of the election. The one-time TV talk show host and son of a former Cabinet minister was poised to win 19 seats, giving him the second-largest faction in parliament.

Presenting himself as the defender of the middle class, Lapid vowed to take on Israel's high cost of living and to end the contentious system of subsidies and draft exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews while they pursue religious studies. The expensive system has bred widespread resentment among the Israeli mainstream.

Thanks to his strong performance, Lapid is now in a position to serve as the kingmaker of the next government. He will likely seek a senior Cabinet post and other concessions.

Yaakov Peri, a member of Lapid's party, said it would not join unless the government pledges to begin drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the military, lowers the country's high cost of living and returns to peace talks. "We have red lines. We won't cross those red lines, even if it will cost us sitting in the opposition," Peri told Channel 2 TV.

Addressing his supporters, a beaming Lapid was noncommittal, calling only for a broad government with moderates from left and right. "Israelis said no to the politics of fear and hatred," he said. "And they said no to extremism and anti-democracy."

There was even a distant possibility of Lapid and more dovish parties teaming up to block Netanyahu from forming a majority.

"It could be that this evening is the beginning for a big chance to create an alternative government to the Netanyahu government," said Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the Labor Party, which won 15 seats on a platform pledging to narrow the gaps between rich and poor.

Although that seemed unlikely, Netanyahu clearly emerged from the election in a weakened state.

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