Israeli PM Netanyahu scrambles to keep his job

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 23, 2013 at 9:21 am •  Published: January 23, 2013
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JERUSALEM (AP) — A weakened Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

The results defied forecasts that Israel's next government would veer sharply to the right at a time when the country faces mounting international isolation, growing economic problems and regional turbulence. While that opens the door to unexpected movement on peace efforts, a coalition joining parties with dramatically divergent views on peacemaking, the economy and the military draft could just as easily be headed for gridlock — and perhaps a short life.

With nearly all votes counted, Netanyahu's hawkish bloc and rival centrists and leftists each commanded 60 of parliament's 120 seats. Netanyahu, who called early elections three months ago expecting easy victory, is likely to be tapped to form the next government because his Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance is the largest single bloc in parliament, while his rivals include 12 seats from Arab parties that are traditionally excluded from coalition building.

Netanyahu said the election outcome proved "the Israeli public wants me to continue leading the country" and put together "as broad a coalition as possible" to achieve three major domestic policy goals: bring ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the military, provide affordable housing and change the system of government, now hostage to a fragmented multiparty system that often gives smaller coalition partners outsize strength.

He later alluded to peacemaking, but only obliquely so, when he added that coalition talks would also focus on "security and diplomatic responsibility." He took no questions from reporters and strode immediately out of the room after delivering his statement.

His remarks seemed to be an overture to political newcomer Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, which turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt Netanyahu such a sharp political blow.

Yesh Atid's leader, Yair Lapid, has said he would only join a government committed to sweeping economic changes and an overhaul of the system of government. He also called for a serious effort to resume stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, but his main focus is on economic and social issues.

The results were not official, and the final bloc breakdowns could shift before the central elections committee finishes its tally early Thursday. With the blocs so evenly divided, there remains a remote possibility that Netanyahu would not form the next government, even though both he and Lapid have called for the creation of a broad coalition.

Under Israel's parliamentary system, voters cast ballots for parties, not individual candidates. Because no party throughout Israel's 64-year history has ever won an outright majority of parliamentary seats, the country has always been governed by coalitions. Traditionally, the party that wins the largest number of seats is given the first chance to form a governing alliance. President Shimon Peres has until mid-February to set that process in motion, though he could begin earlier.

Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance polled strongest in Tuesday's election, winning 31 parliamentary seats. But that is still 11 fewer than the 42 it held in the outgoing parliament and below the forecasts of 32 to 37 in recent polls. Yesh Atid had been projected to capture about a dozen seats but won 19, making it the second-largest in the legislature.

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