Israel's Netanyahu gets lukewarm vote for third term

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TEL AVIV, Israel -- A weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged today from Israel's national election likely to serve a third term, according to preliminary results and political analysts after voters Tuesday gave a surprising second place to a new centrist party founded by a television celebrity who emphasized kitchen-table issues like class size and apartment prices.

For Mr. Netanyahu, who entered the race an overwhelming favorite with no obvious challenger, the outcome was a humbling rebuke as his ticket lost seats in the new Parliament. Overall, the prime minister's conservative team came in first, but it was the center, led by the political novice Yair Lapid, 49, that emerged newly invigorated, suggesting that at the very least Israel's rightward tilt may be stalled.

Mr. Lapid, a telegenic celebrity whose father made a splash with his own short-lived centrist party a decade ago, based his campaign on issues that resonated with the middle class, including the need to integrate the ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army and the workforce.

Perhaps as important, he also avoided antagonizing the right, having not emphasized traditional issues of the left, like the peace process. Like a large majority of the Israeli public, he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is skeptical of the Palestinian leadership's willingness to negotiate seriously; he has called for a return to peace talks but has not made it a priority.

On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu implored his supporters to turn out, reading signs that voters were not embracing his message of security and his party's conservative agenda. The day ended with Mr. Netanyahu reaching out again --this time to Mr. Lapid, offering to work with Israel's newest kingmaker as part of the "broadest coalition possible."

Israel's political hierarchy is only partly determined during an election. The next stage, when factions try to build a majority coalition, decides who will rule, how they will rule and for how long. While Mr. Lapid has signaled a willingness to work with Mr. Netanyahu, the ultimate coalition may bring together parties with such different ideologies and agendas that the result is neither a shift to the right nor the left, but paralysis.

Still, for the center, it was a time of celebration.

"The citizens of Israel today said no to politics of fear and hatred," Mr. Lapid told an upscale crowd of supporters that had welcomed him with drums, dancing and popping Champagne corks. "They said no to the possibility that we might splinter off into sectors, and groups and tribes and narrow interest groups. They said no to extremists, and they said no to antidemocratic behavior."

With three-quarters of the votes counted by 3 a.m. today, Israel Radio reported that Mr. Netanyahu's conservative Likud-Beiteinu ticket was poised to take 31 of Parliament's 120 seats, with Mr. Lapid's party, There Is a Future, coming in second with 19, far more than polls had predicted. The right wing and religious parties that make up Mr. Netanyahu's current coalition garnered a thin majority of perhaps 62 seats, pushing him to try to join with Lapid instead and possibly embrace other center and left-leaning groups. Labor took 15 seats in early returns and Jewish Home, a new religious-nationalist party, 11.

The prime minister called Mr. Lapid shortly after the polls closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday and, according to Israeli television reports, told him that they had great things to do together for the country. In his speech to a rowdy crowd of supporters this morning in Tel Aviv, Mr. Lapid said, "I see many partners."

He said he was open to working with Mr. Netanyahu, saying the only way to face Israel's challenges was "together." But he added: "What is good for Israel is not in the possession of the right, and nor is it in the possession of the left. It lies in the possibility of creating here a real and decent center."

The results were a blow to the prime minister, whose aggressive push to expand Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank has led to international condemnation and strained relations with Washington. The support for Mr. Lapid and the left-leaning Labor Party showed voters responded strongly to an emphasis on domestic, socioeconomic issues that brought 500,000 people to the streets of Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011.

After a lackluster campaign in which the center-left failed to field a credible alternative to Mr. Netanyahu and much attention focused on the rise of Jewish Home, which wants Israel to annex large swaths of the West Bank, the results shocked many analysts and even candidates. Turnout was nearly 67 percent, higher than the 65 percent in 2009 or the 63 percent in 2003.

Meretz, the left-wing pro-peace party, was to double its three Parliament seats, with six, according to early returns. But Kadima, which earned the most seats -- 28 -- in the last election, had shrunk to two seats. The party collapsed last year after briefly entering Mr. Netanyahu's coalition only to fail in its promise to end draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

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