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Israel coalition talks centre on king maker Lapid

Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to media on January 23, 2013, outside his home in Tel Aviv, Israel
Former TV anchor Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to journalists on January 23, 2013, outside his home in Ramat Aviv, northern Tel Aviv. Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid shot to prominence in Israel's elections, was at the heart Thursday o

Former TV anchor Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid shot to prominence in Israel's elections, was at the heart Thursday of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition talks, after rejecting a centre-left alternative.

Lapid's nine-month-old party, which campaigned on socio-economic issues and stunned pundits by winning 19 of the Knesset's 120 seats, has emerged as the partner of choice for Netanyahu after the poor showing of the premier's Likud-Beitenu list.

Netanyahu quickly pledged to build the "broadest possible coalition," saying it would focus on internal social issues.

On Wednesday, a day after the vote, Lapid wrote off the option of building a blocking majority of centre-left and Arab parties, which exit polls said had won 60 seats, equal to rightwing parties.

Final results on Thursday gave the rightwing-religious bloc another seat after far-right Jewish Home picked up one for 12 at the expense of the United Arab List, which dropped from five to four seats.

The central election committee said 67.8 percent of 5.7 million eligible Israelis voted, up from 65.2 percent in 2009.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem on January 23, 2013
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem on January 23, 2013. Netanyahu, in consultations with potential coalition partners, met with Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, at length on Thursday.

The results will be official next week after they are presented to President Shimon Peres.

Meanwhile, a Likud spokeswoman said Netanyahu met Lapid on Thursday as he was negotiating a possible coalition. A statement said the two-and-a-half hour meeting at the premier's residence "was in a very good atmosphere" and dealt with "the challenges facing the state and the ways to deal with them."

Lapid's likely inclusion in Israel's next government is expected to give a centre-right bent to the incoming administration, rather than a swing to the right long predicted by pundits.

The negotiations are being closely watched at home and abroad for indicators on how Israel's new government will handle pressing diplomatic and foreign policy issues, including the deadlocked peace process with the Palestinians and Iran's nuclear programme.

"Lapid must be the standard bearer of a sane, moderate Israel that seeks integration into the international community and promotes civic rights," said the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

Commentators said Netanyahu wanted Lapid in government, giving their two parties 50 seats, but accommodating him would complicate efforts to build a stable coalition.

A central plank of Lapid's campaign was a more equal "sharing of the burden," a euphemism for compelling the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military, which is anathema to the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (seven).

"A government that is based on reaching an equal sharing of the burden is synonymous to a government without ultra-Orthodox parties," said the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.

It suggested a coalition including Jewish Home, the centrist HaTnuah (six) and the centre-right Kadima (two).

While campaigning, Lapid said the Palestinians would have to recognise that large Jewish settlement blocs would remain within Israel, but that there would be no new construction during negotiations, other than to accommodate "natural growth" in existing settlements.

He has also made clear he does not accept the claim that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side.

Lapid's rise and likely inclusion as a central player in the next government mean the chances of a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear facilities appeared to be much reduced, Haaretz defence analyst Amos Harel wrote.

"With a coalition that will squint toward the centre, it seems the chances of an Israeli attack, one that is not coordinated with the Americans, are shrinking significantly," he said.