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Netanyahu's party wins Israeli elections, but centrists flex muscle too

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - 10:00pm

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party got the most votes in Israel's national election Tuesday, but a respectable showing by centrists could halt a rightward swing in the government.

Netanyahu's Likud Beitenu won 31 Knesset seats in the Israel election, according to three TV exit polls, gaining the most as expected. Jewish Home, an extreme right party with a charismatic leader named Naftali Bennett, got 12 seats.

But the centrists and leftists attracted waves of voters displeased with, among other things, Israel's high cost of living, and more supportive of talks with Palestinians. At first glance, the initial result reflects a politically polarized electorate, with possibly an edge to the rightists.

One analyst said the election is good news for the Obama administration, which has had prickly relations with the right-wing Netanyahu government. It comes after a high turnout -- the percentage of eligible voters who cast a vote was 66.6%, just 1% more than the 2009 election.

"It's unclear if Netanyahu wanted a pure right-wing option in the first place," said David Makovsky, Israel expert for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"But Washington can breathe a sigh of relief that Netanyahu will need to reach accommodation with some parties at the center of the map who essentially would like to see progress on the Palestinian issue as well as on economic issues."

Yesh Atid party, a movement devoted to helping the middle class and halting military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox civilians, came in a surprising second place with 19 seats, according to two exit polls, and 18, according to a third.

Its leader is a dynamic figure -- Yair Lapid, whose late father, Tommy Lapid, led Shinui, a onetime secularist party that took on the influence and power of the ultra-Orthodox.

The Labor Party, whose leader Shelly Yacimovich campaigned solely on economic concerns, pulled 17 seats. Before the election, she was expected to finish in second place, so that is a surprise.

Hatnua, the party of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who is focused on talks with Palestinians, gained seven seats. Another poll says Meretz, a longtime left-wing party, gained seven seats.

"Politics is often about expectations," Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said.

"Once the public thought that Netanyahu was a shoo-in, it assumed his victory and looked for a fresh face that would be focused on issues that he has not prioritized. This explains the meteoric rise of a new party (Yesh Atid) which said it would focus on the middle class and find a way so the ultra-Orthodox participate in burden-sharing by joining either the compulsory army or civilian form of mandatory service.

One party in Israel never gets a parliamentary majority of more than 60 seats, so parties must rely on coalition-building. The question is whether Netanyahu will stay on the right or center.

Will he form a right-wing coalition with Jewish Home and religious blocs like Shas -- which earned between 11 and 13 seats, exit polls show? Or will he move to the center and try to form a coalition with Yesh Atid, for example, and others? Or is it possible that a center-left coalition could be cobbled together?

Netanyahu and his party sensed Yesh Atid's momentum. He called on his backers to come out and vote.

"The Likud government is in danger, go vote for us for the sake of the country's future," he was quoted as saying.

After the exit polls rolled in, he thanked Israelis on Facebook for his showing and indicated that he wants to "a very wide government" as the hard work of coalition building begins on Wednesday.

"The (election) results observed are a great opportunity for many changes for the benefit of all citizens of Israel. The complications ahead of us are many and wide, as from tonight I will start my efforts to form a very wide government as possible."

Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington institute, said the result reflects polarized politics in Israel. He said the immediate consequences of the result is that coalition building will be quite difficult and time-consuming.

The worst-case scenario would be government paralysis and maybe another election sooner than later. While he said it's possible that a centrist coalition could emerge led by Yesh Atid, which means "there is a future," and Labor, he thiniks Netanyahu and Lapid will form a government.

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