ISRAELI prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fighting to keep his job yesterday after Tuesday’s election resulted in an unexpected deadlock between the country’s right- and left-wing blocs.
Mr Netanyahu’s political fate will be decided by a former television anchor man, Yair Lapid, whose new centrist Yesh Atid party gained an astonishing 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to become the kingmaker of Israeli politics.
In a victory speech early yesterday, Mr Lapid said Israelis had “voted for the sake of normalcy, for trust between people, for the right to education and housing”. He later said the deadlock in peacemaking with the Palestinians, which is at least partly a result of Mr Netanyahu’s policy of intensified Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, was putting Israel in danger of isolation. “We are facing a world liable to ostracise us because of the deadlocked peace process,” he said.
With nearly all the votes counted Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc was tied with the centre-left group, with each gaining 60 seats in the parliament.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party list dropped from 42 to 31 seats, reflecting Mr Lapid’s appeal as a fresh face and the popularity of his pledges to address the concerns of middle-class voters pressed by a high cost of living and resentful over the military draft exemptions and largesse the Israeli leader has lavished on his ultra-orthodox partners.
Mr Lapid must now decide whether to join forces with Mr Netanyahu or block him from forming the next government and force another round of elections. Mr Netanyahu himself faces the unsavoury prospect of leading an unstable coalition with divergent views on peacemaking, the economy, and drafting the ultra-orthodox into the army.
In a brief statement, Mr Netanyahu said the result proved “the Israeli public wants me to continue leading the country” and to “put together as broad a coalition as possible”.
In an overture to Yesh Atid, he said the coalition talks would be aimed at bringing ultra-orthodox men into the military, providing affordable housing and reforming Israel’s system of government to reduce the power of small parties. Mr Netanyahu barely mentioned negotiating with the Palestinians, saying the coalition talks would focus on “security and diplomatic responsibility”.
The main advocate of forming a 60-member bloc headed by Mr Lapid that would prevent Mr Netanyahu from ruling is the leader of the Labour party, Shelly Yacimovich, who has ruled out serving with the Likud-Beiteinu leader because of his right-wing economic policies.
Mr Netanyahu is likely to be tapped by president Shimon Peres to try to form the government since he heads the largest faction in the Knesset and because Arab parties, who have 12 seats on the centre-left, have traditionally been kept out of coalitions.
Mr Netanyahu’s poorer than expected showing was partly caused by the perception that his victory was assured. But he also made mistakes, focusing on competing with the nationalist Jewish Home party and not paying enough attention to Mr Lapid’s ability to rally middle class Israelis.
His setback was not necessarily a punishment for his hardline approach to the Palestinians. Had voters wanted to punish him, it would have been translated into a strong showing for the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who made renewing talks the only issue of her campaign. But her HaTnua party won only six seats.