Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and former Foreign… (Oded Balilty, Associated…)
JERUSALEM — Israeli voters dealt a stunning political rebuke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leaving parliamentary elections in a virtual tie between the right and center-left and denying him the mandate he sought to pursue hawkish policies toward Palestinian peace talks, Iran's nuclear program and construction of West Bank settlements.
Netanyahu was still regarded as the most likely candidate to form a new government after Tuesday's voting because there are few other credible figures. But the disappointing performance will require him to reach out to the center in order to form a governing coalition.
With all but votes from prisoners, military voters and some government workers counted early Wednesday, Israel's conservative and religious parties had won 60 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, the same number won by centrist and left-wing parties, who were led by a surprisingly strong performance from a political newcomer, Yair Lapid.
Though the final tally could change slightly, the close race all but ensures a period of turmoil before a new government emerges, and catapults Lapid and his recently formed centrist party, Yesh Atid ("There Is a Future"), into the forefront of Israeli politics. The party formed by the charismatic former TV broadcaster won 19 seats, the second-highest number of any party.
Amid a stronger-than-expected voter turnout of 67% — up from 65% in 2009 — the conservative bloc fell five seats short of the 65 seats it amassed four years ago, while the center-left parties picked up five.
The right was led by a joint slate between Netanyahu's Likud Party and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, which won 31 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That's far less than the combined 42 seats the two parties won four years ago when they ran separately. Based on the ratio determined in the shared slate, the results translate into about 20 seats for Likud and 11 for Yisrael Beiteinu.
Netanyahu held a slim lead as returns began to pour in Tuesday night. As the results were still being tallied, he declared victory early Wednesday and vowed to seek a broad coalition.
"I believe that the election results are an opportunity to make changes that the citizens are hoping for and that will serve all of Israel's citizens," he told supporters. "I intend to lead these changes, and to this end we must form as wide a coalition as possible."
That last part, at least, will prove true for whomever forms the next government.
Even before the tally slipped into a tie, however, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich called the results a "no-confidence vote" for the prime minister, saying, "The public has said a clear 'no' to Netanyahu's policy." She also vowed to fight to replace Netanyahu in the coming days.
Her left-leaning party received 15 seats, but it was eclipsed by the surprise performance of Lapid's party, which won nearly twice as many seats as polls had predicted.
The results signal a slowdown in the rightward shift of the Israeli electorate in recent years. The conservatism has been attributed to growing pessimism by many Israelis about peace talks and by the belief that Palestinians will never accept Israel as a Jewish state. Such sentiments spread after the Palestinian uprising a decade ago, when hundreds of Israeli civilians were killed in suicide bombings.
Netanyahu's tough stance toward Palestinians and expansion of Jewish settlements on land claimed by Palestinians has tapped into such sentiments.
But critics, including centrist leaders like Lapid, say Netanyahu's policies have isolated Israel internationally and squandered a chance to reach a peace deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has been praised as a moderate Palestinian leader who disavows violence, but he has refused to resume peace talks as long as Israel continues to build settlements on land it seized during the 1967 Middle East War.
Lapid, 49, appealed to middle-class, secular moderates, focusing his campaign on a promise to end the draft exemption that allows ultra-Orthodox young people to avoid military service and to slash government subsidies to West Bank settlers.
He also supports resuming Palestinian peace talks and opposes attacking Iran's nuclear program without American cooperation.
Though center-left leaders were pressuring Lapid to boycott a new Netanyahu government, he signaled willingness — at least when it still appeared Netanyahu would win — to join if his programs are implemented.
"What is good for Israel is not in the possession of the right and nor is it in the possession of the left," he said. "It lies in the possibility of creating here a real and decent center that listens to the other side, that knows how to engage in dialogue, that remembers that we are here together."