After Win, Netanyahu Seeks Broad Coalition
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party emerged as the largest faction in a close parliamentary election Tuesday, but a lackluster performance by his party along with surprising gains by a centrist newcomer raised the possibility that he will be forced to form a broad coalition.
The exit polls, by Israel’s two leading news channels, have historically proved accurate within a few percentage points. They showed Mr. Netanyahu’s joint slate with Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, won 31 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, a drop from 42 the two parties had in the outgoing Knesset. The Labor Party placed third with 17 mandates, according to the polls.
In a statement posted on his Facebook FB +3.60%page, Mr. Netanyahu said he would reach across the aisle and try to form a broad-based coalition.
«According to the exit polls, it is clear that Israel citizens decided that they want me to continue to serve as prime minister of Israel, and that I form the widest possible majority (coalition),» he said. «Already this evening I will begin working toward the widest possible government.»
Such a scenario would have deep implications for Mideast peace prospects. Mr. Netanyahu’s centrist opponents have said they would not join his government if he doesn’t make a serious push for peace with the Palestinians. Peace talks have been deadlocked throughout Mr. Netanyahu’s four-year term.
In the biggest surprise, the centrist «Yesh Atid,» party headed by political newcomer Yair Lapid captured as many as 19 seats, well above the forecasts. That would position Lapid to become either opposition leader or seek a major cabinet post if he decides to join Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
Mr. Lapid’s party rode a wave of middle-class discontent over high cost of living and frustration over the special treatment given to the country’s ultraorthodox community.
«I think it’s a very clear statement that the people of Israel want to see a different direction and want to see a country that deals with all the pressing issues inside the country,» said Yesh Atid candidate Rabbi Dov Lipman.
The Jewish Home party, lead by ultra right winger and former venture capitalist Naftali Bennett, scored 12 seats, according to the polls.
All together, right-of-center parties appear set for a narrow 61-seat majority in the Knesset, upending pre-election polls that predicted a landslide for the right and is likely to complicate Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government.
Polls ahead of the election showed that Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign was limping to the finish line amid dropping support that could very likely leave him a weakened prime minister in a more fragile coalition than he currently heads.
Amid unseasonably warm temperatures, turnout during the first five hours of voting was 26.7%, higher than the previous election in 2009, Israel Radio reported.
Although Mr. Netanyahu is grappling with increased international isolation, strained ties with U.S. President Barack Obama and a looming fiscal austerity plan, the Israeli prime minister has faced little competition from a fractured opposition that lacks a formidable rival candidate for the post.
While the absence of a strong challenger on the center-left has sapped excitement about the vote, and Mr. Netanyahu has struggled with robust campaigns from parties to the right of Likud, such as the pro-settler Jewish Home, which have siphoned off support. Polls had indicated that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu combined candidate slate could drop from 42 seats in the Knesset to the low 30s.
His closest challenger, the center-left Labor Party and its chairwoman, Shelly Yachimovich, has been polling at half the strength of Likud and suffering from a downward trend in the surveys as well.
Voting in Tel Aviv, Ms. Yachimovich said she sensed a «tide'» of support swinging to Labor and predicted that the election would lead to an upset of the ruling party.
The election is also expected to usher into office record numbers of Israeli settlers and Orthodox Jews.
The number of Israeli residents from the West Bank in the Knesset could rise from the current 12 to as many as 18, exaggerating the influence of a constituency that accounts for just under 5 % of the population, a figure that doesn’t include residents of East Jerusalem, who are also considered settlers by the international community.
The representation of religious Jewish parliament members could jump from 26 in the current legislature to 40, according to Israeli political analysts. That also reflects a larger percentage than their representation in the general population.
The surge highlights the ascent of Israel’s ideologically driven Jewish settlers and their nationalist religious supporters to the forefront of Israel’s political establishment after decades of marginalization and self-segregation, say analysts. Most settlers have been highly critical of the peace process.