Political newbie in Israel becomes power broker

Leader of new centrist party is expected to play major role as Netanyahu tries to form a broad-based coalition government

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JERUSALEM -- Just a few days ago, Yair Lapid was a political rookie making his first foray into Israeli elections with a newly formed centrist party. He awoke Wednesday as a major power broker.

Israeli pundits and journalists wasted no time anointing Mr. Lapid, 49, a possible heir-apparent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose conservative Likud Party delivered a disappointing performance at the polls. Mr. Lapid's new party, Yesh Atid ("There Is a Future"), won 19 seats, nearly overtaking Likud, which came in first with 20. "New King Is Crowned," blared one newspaper headline.

Despite Mr. Netanyahu's lackluster showing, he is still considered the front-runner to lead the next government. But it is certain to have a more centrist cast and is likely to pursue a more moderate course at home and abroad. And Mr. Lapid is virtually sure to play a key role.

Mr. Lapid and other political leaders huddled Wednesday to plan their next moves and prepare for negotiations on forming the next coalition government. With nearly all the votes counted, right-leaning parties that form Mr. Netanyahu's larger constituency were in a dead heat with center-left parties, with both blocs winning 60 seats each. Final tallies are expected to be announced today.

Mr. Netanyahu told reporters he hoped to form a broad-based coalition that would focus on domestic challenges, including "an equal distribution of social burden, attainable housing and a change in the system of government," apparently meaning tweaks to the parliamentary system to make it more functional.

Since such topics were scarcely raised by Mr. Netanyahu amid the campaign, his comments suggested that Mr. Lapid, who did focus on them, is already having an effect on domestic policy.

It's less clear how, or whether, Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and Iran might shift under the next government, although Mr. Lapid takes a slightly more moderate approach to both. He supports a two-state solution to Palestinian relations but opposes evacuating the large West Bank settlement blocks.

In theory, these are Mr. Netanyahu's policies as well, but the incumbent has been criticized by some on the left for failing to aggressively pursue peace under a two-state system.

Mr. Lapid says he has no illusions about a "happy marriage" with Palestinians; instead, he says, he seeks a "divorce agreement we can live with."

Palestinians expressed skepticism Wednesday that Mr. Lapid's rise would do much to end settlement construction, which they consider a condition for restarting negotiations. U.S. officials have taken a wait-and-see approach, saying they hope the next Israeli government will try to negotiate a two-state solution.

Mr. Lapid's potential influence on wider international relations is murkier, but he has spoken out against striking Iran's purported nuclear program without U.S. support. Mr. Netanyahu has said he would consider a unilateral strike.

For many Israelis, there is a sense of deja vu in the newcomer's sudden success. Mr. Lapid, married with three children, started as a military magazine correspondent and eventually rose to become one of the nation's most recognized broadcasters. A year ago, he left journalism and announced plans to throw his hat into the political ring, as his father had done before him -- then-Knesset member Yosef "Tommy" Lapid. His political party had won 15 seats in the 2003 election.

Those who know Mr. Lapid warn against underestimating him. "He's absolutely ready," said Rabbi Dov Lipman, who immigrated to Israel from Maryland eight years ago and was elected Tuesday to the Knesset on the Yesh Atid slate. "He's a natural leader with a vision and ability to execute."

Rabbi Lipman said that while rival candidates bickered and argued during the campaign, Mr. Lapid quietly built a grass-roots movement, drawing 15,000 volunteers nationwide. He calls his party "center-center," to distinguish it from the center-left.

Mr. Lapid's supporters say they don't expect him to make a power grab or challenge Mr. Netanyahu for the prime minister's job, at least not now. Instead, he is calling for a broad coalition of parties to join him in a Netanyahu-led government.

Yesh Atid members said Mr. Lapid would not shy away from using his newly acquired leverage to pressure the next government to push through his reform program, including implementing a military draft for ultra-Orthodox young people.

Experts attribute Mr. Lapid's surprising success -- his party received twice as many Knesset seats as most polls had predicted -- to his focus on secular middle-class taxpayers struggling to cope with the rising cost of living and increasingly resentful of ultra-Orthodox families who rely on government welfare and refuse to serve in the military.

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