Israeli PM fights to keep job after electoral upset

OLIVE BRANCH::Pollsters were surprised by the strong showing of a new centrist party, forcing the ruling party to start courting its political opponents to form a wide coalition


Thu, Jan 24, 2013 - Page 6

Badly weakened by parliamentary electoral results, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday scrambled to keep his job by reaching out to a new centrist party that advocates a more earnest push on peacemaking with the Palestinians after the election produced a stunning deadlock.

The results defied forecasts that Israel’s next government would veer sharply to the right at a time when the country faces mounting international isolation, growing economic problems and regional turbulence. While that opens the door to unexpected movement on peace efforts, a coalition joining parties with dramatically divergent views on peacemaking, the economy and the military draft could just as easily be headed for gridlock.

Israeli media said that with 99.8 percent of votes counted, the left and right blocs each had 60 of parliament’s 120 seats. Observers said that Netanyahu, who called early elections three months ago expecting an easy victory, would be tapped to form the next government because the rival camp drew 12 of its 60 seats from Arab parties, which are excluded from coalition building.

A surprisingly strong showing by political newcomer the Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) Party, in Tuesday’s vote turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt a setback to Netanyahu.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has said he would only join a government committed to sweeping economic changes and a serious push to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, which have languished during Netanyahu’s four-year tenure.

The results were not official and there was a slim chance of a slight shift in the final bloc breakdowns and a possibility that Netanyahu would not form the next government, even though both he and Lapid have called for the creation of a broad coalition.

Under Israel’s parliamentary system, voters cast ballots for parties, not individual candidates. Because no party throughout Israel’s 64-year history has ever won an outright majority of parliamentary seats, the country has always been governed by coalitions.

Traditionally, the party that wins the largest number of seats is given the first chance to form a governing alliance in negotiations that center around promising Cabinet posts and policy concessions. If those negotiations are successful, the leader of that party becomes prime minister. If not, the task falls to a smaller faction.

Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance polled strongest in Tuesday’s election, winning 31 parliamentary seats, but that is still 11 fewer than the 42 it held in the outgoing parliament and below the forecasts of 32 to 37 in recent polls.

Yesh Atid had been forecast to capture about a dozen seats, but won 19, making it the second-largest in the legislature.

Addressing his supporters early yesterday, when an earlier vote count gave his bloc a shaky, one-seat parliamentary margin, 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 Orthodox Jewish men and the “responsible” pursuit of a “genuine peace” with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu called Lapid early yesterday and offered to work together.

Lapid also called for the formation of a broad government.

“I call on the leaders of the political establishment to work with me together to the best of their ability to form as broad a government as possible that will contain moderate forces from the left and right, the right and the left, so that we will truly be able to bring about real change,” he told supporters.

However, the goal of a broad coalition will not be an easy one and will force Netanyahu to make some difficult decisions.

Leading Yesh Atid member Yaakov Peri yesterday said that the party will not join unless the government pledges to begin drafting the Orthodox into the military, lowers the country’s high cost of living and returns to peace talks.