The New York Times: Marcus Sheff, Executive Director of TIP Israel describes landscape in Israeli Elections

A weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged Wednesday from Israel’s national election likely to serve a third term,  after voters on Tuesday gave a surprising second place to a new centrist party founded by a television celebrity who emphasized kitchen-table issues like class size and apartment prices.

For Mr. Netanyahu, who entered the race an overwhelming favorite with no obvious challenger, the outcome was a humbling rebuke as his ticket lost seats in the new Parliament. Over all, his conservative team came in first, but it was the center, led by the political novice Yair Lapid, 49, that emerged newly invigorated, suggesting that at the very least Israel’s rightward tilt may be stalled.

Mr. Lapid, a telegenic celebrity whose father made a splash with his own short-lived centrist party a decade ago, ran a campaign that resonated with the middle class. His signature issue is a call to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army and the work force.

Perhaps as important, he also avoided antagonizing the right, having not emphasized traditional issues of the left, like the peace process. Like a large majority of the Israeli public, he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is skeptical of the Palestinian leadership’s willingness to negotiate seriously; he has called for a return to peace talks but has not made it a priority.

Sensing his message of strength was not penetrating, Mr. Netanyahu posted a panicky message on Facebook before the polls closed, saying, “The Likud government is in danger, go vote for us for the sake of the country’s future.” Tuesday ended with Mr. Netanyahu reaching out again — this time to Mr. Lapid, Israel’s newest kingmaker, offering to work with him as part of the “broadest coalition possible.”

Israel’s political hierarchy is only partly determined during an election. The next stage, when factions try to build a majority coalition, decides who will govern, how they will govern and for how long. While Mr. Lapid has signaled a willingness to work with Mr. Netanyahu, the ultimate coalition may bring together parties with such different ideologies and agendas that the result is paralysis.

Still, for the center, it was a time of celebration.

“The citizens of Israel today said no to politics of fear and hatred,” Mr. Lapid told an upscale crowd of supporters who had welcomed him with drums, dancing and popping Champagne corks. “They said no to the possibility that we might splinter off into sectors, and groups and tribes and narrow interest groups. They said no to extremists, and they said no to antidemocratic behavior.”

With 99 percent of the ballots counted by Wednesday morning, the traditional blocs were evenly divided, with 60 Parliament seats for right-wing and religious parties, and 60 for center, left and Arab-dominated factions.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu ticket had 31 seats, followed by 19 for Mr. Lapid’s Yesh Atid and 15 for Labor. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party and the Jewish Home, which is dominated by religious-Zionists and advocates annexing the West Bank, each garnered 11 seats. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua and the left-wing, pro-peace Meretz each got six, while the three Arab parties totaled 12. Kadima which won the most parliament seats – 28 – in the last election, had 2, having collapsed after briefly joining the Netanyahu coalition last year but failing to fulfill its promises. Votes of soldiers and a few other groups had yet to be counted and could change the balance.

The prime minister called Mr. Lapid shortly after the polls closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday and, according to Israeli television reports, told him that they had great things to do together for the country. In his speech to a rowdy crowd of supporters here Wednesday morning, he said, “I see many partners.”

Mr. Lapid indicated he was open to working with Mr. Netanyahu, saying the only way to face Israel’s challenges was “together.” But he added: “What is good for Israel is not in the possession of the right, and nor is it in the possession of the left. It lies in the possibility of creating here a real and decent center.”

The results were a blow to the prime minister, whose aggressive push to expand Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has led to international condemnation and strained relations with Washington. The support for Mr. Lapid and Labor showed voters responded strongly to an emphasis on domestic, socioeconomic issues that brought 500,000 people to the streets of Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011.

“Israelis are asking for a moderate coalition,” said Marcus Sheff, executive director of The Israel Project, an advocacy group that conducts research on public opinion. “Israel’s middle class wasn’t asleep as people assumed. The embers of the social protest are still strong.”

Erel Margalit, a venture capitalist and first-time candidate who was elected to Parliament on Labor’s list, described the high turnout as a “protest vote” and “a clear demonstration of how many Israelis feel like something needs to be done and something needs to change.”

“It was not a fringe phenomenon; it was a mainstream phenomenon,” he said of the 2011 movement.

After the center-left failed to field a credible alternative to Mr. Netanyahu and much attention focused on the hawkish Jewish Home, which wants Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank, the results shocked many analysts and even candidates. Turnout was nearly 67 percent, higher than the 65 percent in 2009 and the 63 percent in 2003.

Meretz, the left-wing pro-peace party, was set to double its three Parliament seats, with six. It remained unclear whether Kadima, the centrist party that won the most seats in 2009 — 28 — had enough votes to send anyone to Parliament. The party collapsed last year after briefly entering Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition only to fail in its promise to end draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

Mr. Netanyahu, 63, is already Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister, after the state’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion, having served from 1996 to 1999 and then again since 2009.

Analysts said he had virtually ensured his victory as the campaign had begun by uniting his party with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned as foreign minister last month after being indicted on a charge of fraud. But it was mostly downhill from there: the joint list fell far short of the 42 seats the two parties now hold in Parliament. Experts cited both supporters’ confidence in Mr. Netanyahu’s returning to the premiership — leaving them feeling freer to cast ballots elsewhere — and tactical errors.

“While in the past he was given poor cards and played them well, this time he had the best cards and played them badly,” Ari Shavit, a columnist for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, said Tuesday night on Israel’s Channel One. “This was a lesson in how not to run a campaign.”

Now, Mr. Netanyahu is left to form a government among factions with competing interests: Mr. Lapid’s vision challenges the ultra-Orthodox parties that have long been part of Mr. Netanyahu’s team, and Jewish Home’s platform contradicts that of Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who based her campaign on returning to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Several commentators saw Tuesday’s vote as an “interim” election, predicting that the new coalition, whatever its makeup, would not be able to withstand the pressing challenges ahead, including a $10 billion budget deficit and the question of whether to launch a military strike against the Iranian nuclear program.

“This is a government that will not be able to make decisions on anything — on the peace process, on equal sharing of the burden or on budgetary matters,” Emmanuel Rosen, a prominent television analyst, said early Wednesday on Channel 10. “The next elections are already on the horizon.”

Reporting was contributed by Isabel Kershner and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem, Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Tel Aviv, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.


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