Israel elections: Secular parties come out on top

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IT WAS a bad day for the far right. It won only nine seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The victors in the election were the centre parties and Shas, the party of the Sephardi ultra- orthodox, whose leader has been sentenced to four years in prison for accepting bribes.

Israeli commentators were having difficulty last night absorbing the extent of the changes in the Israeli parliament. According to the exit polls Mr Netanyahu's own centre-right Likud party will win only 19 seats.

The beneficiary is Arieh Deri, the leader of Shas, who took 15 seats. The other religious parties did badly and will now worry about the secular backlash among voters.

The centre parties did well. The newly formed Centre Party itself will win seats, according to the exit polls. But a similar number will go to Shinui, the anti-clerical party. Other new faces in the Knesset will be Amir Peretz, the trade union leader, and Pnina Rosenblum's women's rights party. Third Way, the party devoted to keeping the Golan Heights, lost all its seats.

The overall victory of the secular centre-left (bearing in mind that the left in Israel is in fact the better-off) should make it easy for Mr Barak to form a government. His own Labour party will win 29 to 33 seats.

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