Strong showing of centrist parties complicates formation of new Israeli government

With 31 seats, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu list emerged as strongest party in the new Israeli parliament but suffered a major setback in the general election on Tuesday as it was down from 42 seats in the previous Knesset. Results gave the narrowest of victories for the rightwing-religious block and a surprisingly strong showing (19 seats) for the centrist Yesh Atid party formed by the former TV presenter Yair Lapid last year.

Right wing and Orthodox religious parties won half the seats in the Israeli parliament, presenting Netanyahu with a tough political challenge to put together a stable coalition. Final results could still slightly shift later in the week after votes from serving members of the military are counted.

Yesh Atid concentrated its election campaign on socio-economic issues and removing the exemption for military service for Haredi Jews.

Netanyahu invites Lapid to join new government

Early on Wednesday morning, Netanyahu called Lapid and invited him to join in the new governing coalition. "We have the opportunity to do great things together,” he reportedly told the Yesh Atid leader. However, the prime minister also put out feelers to ultra-Orthodox parties, saying he would open coalition talks with them on Thursday.

According to the Central Election Committee, 66.6 percent of Israelis exercised their right to vote, as well as 80 percent of serving IDF soldiers. Out of some 3.767 million votes cast, about 40,000 were disqualified.

In a speech at his election headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said: "I believe the election results are an opportunity to make changes that the citizens of Israel are hoping for and that will serve all of Israel's citizens. I intend on leading these changes, and to this end we must form as wide a coalition as possible, and I have already begun talks to that end this evening."

Lapid told campaign workers in Tel Aviv: "We must now [...] find the way to work together to find real solutions for real people. I call on the leaders of the political establishment to work with me together, to the best they can, to form as broad a government as possible that will contain in it the moderate forces from the left and right, the right and left, so that we will truly be able to bring about real change."

Labor was the third largest party, winning 15 seats. Party leader Shelly Yachimovich said in a statement: "There is no doubt we are watching a political drama unfold before our eyes." She went on to say: "There is a high chance of a dramatic change, and of the end of the Netanyahu coalition." She would attempt to "form a coalition on an economic-social basis that will also push the peace process forward," Yachimovich added.

The ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, which showed strongly in opinion polls during the campaign, won 11 seats, the same as the ultra-Orthodox party Shas. The leftist party Meretz made an unexpectedly strong showing, with six seats, more than doubling its current presence.

Hatnua, which is led by ex-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, won seven seats, while her former party Kadima, which was the biggest party in the last Knesset with 28 seats, saw its support plummet and only just crossed the threshold of votes needed to win two seats, according to the partial results.

Three parties mostly supported by Israeli Arabs had 12 seats between them. Although they are regarded as part of the left bloc in the Knesset, it is unlikely they will be part of any coalition government.

32 parties had fielded candidates. Likud and Yisrael Beitenu joined forces in a unified list for the election, but will continue to function as separate parties after the election.

In Israel's 64-year history, no party ever won an outright majority of 61 seats, and the country has always been governed by a coalition.

Israel's president will now meet with party factions to determine which party has the best chance of forming a government. The president will then the head of that party, usually but not necessarily the largest, to undertake that task. That person will have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If successful, he or she becomes prime minister; if not, the president chooses another party to try to form a government.

On the eve of the election, the Arab League had taken the unusual step of intervening in Israeli politics, urging Israel’s Arab minority to participate in the polls. Israeli Arabs make up 14 percent of the electorate. However, the participation in the Arab sector was significantly lower than at the last election in 2009.

Reaction from Washington

In a first reaction to the results, the Obama administration said it will to see the makeup of the new government and its policies on peace with the Palestinians. White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said there would be no change in US policy. "The United States remains committed, as it has been for a long time, to working with the parties to press for the goal of a two-state solution. That has not changed and it will not change," he said.

Preliminary results

According to a tally of 99.8 percent of votes counted, the results are as follows:

•    Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu: 31 (-11)
•    Yesh Atid: 19 (+19)
•    Labor: 15 (+2)
•    Shas: 11 (0)
•    Habayit Hayehudi: 11 (+11)
•    United Torah Judaism: 7 (+2)
•    Hatnua: 6 (+6)
•    Meretz: 6 (+3)
•    United Arab List-Taal: 5 (+1)
•    Hadash: 4 (0)
•    Balad: 3 (0)
•    Kadima: 2 (-26)

In brackets: Change in the number of seats compared to the February 2009 Knesset election

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