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Final Israel election tally gives edge to right-wing bloc

Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and other conservative parties won 61 seats in the Knesset, but a more moderate government may emerge.

January 24, 2013|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • A worker removes an election banner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv this week. Netanyahu and former TV journalist Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, are expected to form the core of the next governing coalition.
A worker removes an election banner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu… (Ariel Schalit / Associated…)

JERUSALEM — A final tally released Thursday of votes from Israel's parliamentary election broke the tie between rival ideological factions, giving the right-wing bloc 61 seats in the Knesset compared with 59 seats for center-left parties.

But the final figures — a slight change from the preliminary 60-60 dead heat that was reported after Tuesday's vote — are not expected to alter the course of coalition talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party is seeking to form a broad-based government with the centrist Yesh Atid party, which surprised everyone by coming in second.

The new government, likely to be formed in the next month, is expected to adopt more moderate policies than did Netanyahu's right-wing previous coalition, which focused on confronting Iran's nuclear program and expanding West Bank settlements.

The final election count reflected about 220,000 ballots from soldiers, diplomats, prisoners and others who could not go to the polls Tuesday. After tallying the additional votes, one seat was lost by the United Arab List party and one was gained by the religious nationalist Jewish Home.

According to the Central Election Committee, conservative parties in the next Knesset will consist of Netanyahu's Likud (20 seats), Jewish Home (12 seats), nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (11 seats) and ultra-Orthodox parties Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7 seats).

The center-left was led by Yesh Atid (19 seats) and Labor Party (15 seats). The centrist Kadima won only two seats, dropping from the largest party in the last Knesset to the smallest in the next one.

Netanyahu and former TV journalist Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, are expected to create the core of the next coalition, combining their seats with those of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, which ran on a slate with Likud. That would give them 50 seats, still short of the 61-seat minimum majority needed to control the 120-member parliament.

To reach a majority, they are expected to turn to Jewish Home, which opposes Palestinian statehood and wants to annex parts of the West Bank; the religious parties; or some of the center-left parties, such as Kadima and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Movement, which won six seats.

From a strictly mathematical standpoint, the final tally gives Netanyahu the option of forming a purely right-wing government with his so-called natural partners. But such a coalition would be highly unstable and deadlocked on key issues.

A similar coalition of right-wing and religious parties was unable to pass a 2013 budget, leading to a call for early elections. Though the last coalition agreed on expanding West Bank settlements and refusing to make concessions to Palestinians, it deadlocked on domestic issues, such drafting religious students into the army.

After suffering a rebuke from voters Tuesday, who shaved Likud's seats from 27 to 20, Netanyahu has acknowledged that Israelis want to see his next government include more centrist voices and focus on addressing Israel's high cost of living and ensuring that government benefits and responsibilities are shared equally among its secular and religious citizens.

Election officials also said that voter turnout was about 1 percentage point higher than originally estimated, reaching 67.5% of eligible voters.

Election results will be officially submitted next week to President Shimon Peres, who, after consulting with the winning parties, will ask one of the party leaders to form the next government. By all accounts, that will be Netanyahu.

Then the parties are expected to launch several weeks of intense negotiations over who will join the government, how to divide coveted ministry appointments and what political programs will be pursued.

Among the key debates in shaping the next government will be whether to restart Palestinian peace talks or focus on implementing a military draft for the ultra-Orthodox, who are currently exempted from serving in the army. Both issues are priorities for Lapid, though finding a consensus will be difficult.

If the government seeks to restart peace talks, it might prefer to exclude from the coalition Jewish Home, which has vowed to prevent establishment of a Palestinian state and favors settlement expansion.

On the other hand, Jewish Home would probably support a universal military draft, and other religious parties might quit a coalition that pursued such a policy.

Lieberman, who is battling a fraud indictment that could prevent him from returning to a ministry position, said Thursday that the next government should sideline foreign issues, such as a peace agreement, and focus on domestic problems, on which there is likely to be more agreement among coalition partners.

"If we want to founder from the outset and embark upon endless internal struggles," he said, "then make foreign policy the top priority."

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