Israel Centrists Shift Dynamic

Election Revives Hope for Peace Talks

  • Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu a sharp political blow. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

    Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu a sharp political blow. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

  • Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pauses while delivering a statement at his office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. A weakened Netanyahu scrambled Wednesday to keep his job by extending his hand to a new centrist party that advocates a more earnest push on peacemaking with the Palestinians and whose surprisingly strong showing broadsided him with a stunning election deadlock. (AP Photo/Darren Whiteside, Pool)

    Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pauses while delivering a statement at his office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. A weakened Netanyahu scrambled Wednesday to keep his job by extending his hand to a new centrist party that advocates a more earnest push on peacemaking with the Palestinians and whose surprisingly strong showing broadsided him with a stunning election deadlock. (AP Photo/Darren Whiteside, Pool)

  • A worker removes election banner of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday,  Jan. 23, 2013. A weakened Netanyahu scrambled Wednesday to keep his job by extending his hand to a new centrist party that advocates a more earnest push on peacemaking with the Palestinians and whose surprisingly strong showing broadsided him with a stunning election deadlock. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

    A worker removes election banner of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. A weakened Netanyahu scrambled Wednesday to keep his job by extending his hand to a new centrist party that advocates a more earnest push on peacemaking with the Palestinians and whose surprisingly strong showing broadsided him with a stunning election deadlock. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

  • Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu a sharp political blow. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

    Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu a sharp political blow. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

  • Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu a sharp political blow. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pauses while delivering a statement at his office in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. A weakened Netanyahu scrambled Wednesday to keep his job by extending his hand to a new centrist party that advocates a more earnest push on peacemaking with the Palestinians and whose surprisingly strong showing broadsided him with a stunning election deadlock. (AP Photo/Darren Whiteside, Pool)
  • A worker removes election banner of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday,  Jan. 23, 2013. A weakened Netanyahu scrambled Wednesday to keep his job by extending his hand to a new centrist party that advocates a more earnest push on peacemaking with the Palestinians and whose surprisingly strong showing broadsided him with a stunning election deadlock. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu a sharp political blow. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Jerusalem — The unexpectedly strong showing by a new centrist party in Israel’s parliamentary election has raised hopes of a revival of peace talks with Palestinians that have languished for four years under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Political newcomer Yair Lapid, the surprise kingmaker, is already being courted by a weakened Netanyahu, who needs his support to form a ruling coalition. Lapid has said he will not sit in the government unless the peace process is restarted.

But following a campaign in which the Palestinian issue was largely ignored, it remains unclear how hard Lapid will push the issue in what could be weeks of coalition talks with Netanyahu.

Tuesday’s election ended in a deadlock, with Netanyahu’s hard-line religious bloc of allies and the rival bloc of centrist, secular and Arab parties each with 60 seats, according to near-complete official results. Opinion polls had universally forecast a majority of seats going to the right-wing bloc.

While Netanyahu, as head of the largest single party in parliament, is poised to remain prime minister, it appears impossible for him to cobble together a majority coalition without reaching across the aisle.

Lapid, whose Yesh Atid — or There is a Future — captured 19 seats, putting it in second place, is the most likely candidate to join him. In a gesture to Netanyahu, Lapid said there would not be a “blocking majority,” in which opposition parties prevent the prime minister from forming a government. The comment virtually guarantees that Netanyahu will be prime minister, with Lapid a major partner.

Netanyahu said he would work to create a wide coalition stretching across the political divide.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, he said the election proved “the Israeli public wants me to continue leading the country” and put together “as broad a coalition as possible.”

He said the next government would pursue three major domestic policy goals: to bring ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, who are routinely granted draft exemptions, into the military, to provide affordable housing and to change the current fragmented multiparty system, which often gives smaller coalition partners outsize strength.

But Netanyahu only alluded to peacemaking in vague terms, saying coalition talks would focus on “security and diplomatic responsibility.” He took no questions from reporters and walked out of the room.

Netanyahu’s comments were clearly aimed at the 49-year-old Lapid, a former TV talk-show host who has pitched himself as an average Israeli and champion of a middle class struggling to make ends meet.

Though committed to pursuing peace, Lapid’s campaign focused on pocketbook issues, raising speculation that he might abandon the peace agenda to extract other concessions from Netanyahu.

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Lapid criticized Netanyahu’s handling of peace efforts, saying he was committed to restarting negotiations and would not serve as a “fig leaf” in a hard-line government.

Dov Lipman, a lawmaker in Lapid’s party, said Yesh Atid was serious about resuming talks with the Palestinians. He said the party’s strong performance “clearly says the people of Israel, while focusing on internal issues ... do understand we have to be in negotiations, exploring solutions and have to be trying to get to the two-state solution.”

“We feel that with a sincere approach from the Israeli side, showing we’re serious, we can make progress,” he said. “We don’t feel it’s responsible leadership to be in a government which is not trying to move forward in negotiations.”

Talks have ground to a standstill during Netanyahu’s past four years in office, in large part because of his continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in 1967, for a future state and refuse to negotiate while the construction continues.

Under Israel’s election laws, President Shimon Peres must formally charge Netanyahu with the task of forming a new coalition within six weeks.

If he reaches a power-sharing deal with Lapid, it remains far from clear whether it would be enough to restart talks. While Netanyahu has grudgingly accepted the idea of establishing a Palestinian state, his Likud Party is dominated by hard-liners who oppose Palestinian independence.