Israeli election ends in dramatic deadlock

Badly weakened leader forced to cobble together a coalition of parties from both camps

Tel Aviv

Israelis delivered the narrowest of election victories to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, but did not endorse what most analysts had predicted would be a lurch to right, instead giving their backing to a broader, centrist coalition.

With almost all the votes now counted, Israel’s two political blocs – the left and the right – were level on 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, the closest Israeli election result in history.

Bibi, as Mr Netanyahu is universally known in Israel, secured 31 seats, a huge disappointment for his Likud party, and its formal coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu, which lost a quarter of the 42 seats they held in the last Knesset.

Mr Netanyahu told supporters at an election night rally in Tel Aviv that he would seek, “as broad a government as possible,” when the horse-trading over which parties join the new coalition begins today. “I believe the election results are an opportunity to make changes that the citizens of Israel are hoping for and that will serve all of Israel's citizens. I intend on leading these changes, and to this end we must form as wide a coalition as possible, and I have already begun talks to that end this evening,” he said.

His speech was a long way from his campaign rhetoric, which seemed set on attracting right wing voters. This is largely because of the surprisingly strong performance of the centrist Yesh Atid, a new party formed and led by former television personality Yair Lapid, which finished second with 19 seats. Polls published before the vote suggested the party would win just 12 seats, and trail in fourth or fifth place.

Bibi last night said that he had spoken to Mr Lapid: “We have an opportunity to do very big things for the State of Israel,” he told the Yesh Atid leader. Mr Lapid campaigned on economic and social issues, but is also in favour of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

Dr Yehuda Ben Meir, an expert on Israeli public opinion, said that Yesh Atid was now likely to become the junior coalition partner. “A coalition with Mr Netanyahu’s natural partners does not exist. The clear and definite partner is Mr Lapid.”

The other big surprise was the tepid performance of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which was took 11 seats, down on the 14 or even 16 it has been predicted to win last week. Naftali Bennett, the party’s charismatic leader who campaigned on denying the Palestinians a state, had become a poster boy for the right during the campaign, although it looked as though much of his support ebbed away at the ballot box. “We're advocating proud, not apologetic, Zionism,” he told supporters at a rally last night.

Ayelet Shaked, number four on the Jewish Home list, last night tried to paw away questions about whether her party would join the coalition. “I think 12 or 13 mandates [as was predicted by exit polls] is a great achievement. Likud aggressively campaigned against us, and it probably cost us one or two mandates. It’s far too early to talk about coalitions.” The ultra-orthodox Shas party will also have 11 Knesset members.

Attention will now switch to the formation of the governing coalition; a drawn out process which can last as long as six weeks. As the election winner, Mr Netanyahu will be asked by President Shimon Peres this morning to try and find a way of putting together a patchwork administration.

The victor does not always take the spoils, however. At the last election, in 2009, Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima won the most seats, but after weeks of negotiating was unable to form a government, allowing Mr Netanyahu to become Prime Minister. Going from being the biggest party in the Knesset, Kadima appears to have won just two seats this time around.

The close result raises the prospect of another election, with analysts already speculating last night that Mr Netanyahu could drop Yisrael Beiteinu.

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