JERUSALEM – In a stunning setback, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus hard-line bloc fared worse than expected in a parliamentary election Tuesday, exit polls showed, possibly forcing the incumbent Israeli leader to invite surprisingly strong moderate rivals into his government and soften his line toward the Palestinians.
TV exit polls showed the hard-liners with about 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, a bare majority, and the counts could change as actual votes are tallied.
The unofficial TV results had Netanyahu winning only 31 seats, though he combined his Likud Party with the far-right Yisrael Beitenu for the voting. Running separately four years ago, the two won 42 seats. He expected to increase that total by running together, but the combined lists poll results dipped steadily throughout the three-month campaign.
Netanyahu was also expected to receive stronger backing because his fragmented opposition did not post an agreed-on candidate against him.
If they hold up through the actual vote counting, the unexpected results could be seen a setback for Netanyahus tough policies. The coalition-building process could force him to promise concessions to restart long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
Addressing cheering supporters early today, Netanyahu pledged to work for a broad-based government and said he would show responsibility in striving for a genuine peace.
Netanyahu made a quick phone call to a newcomer on Israels political stage, Yair Lapid, whose centrist party debuted with a strong showing of 19 seats, making it the second-largest party after Netanyahus.
Nearly 67 percent of Israels 5.5 million eligible voters took part, more than in previous elections – apparently giving boosts to the centrists, especially Lapids new Yesh Atid, or there is a future, party, which nearly doubled results predicted by polls before the election.
Lapids surprise showing could make him a key Cabinet minister should he decide to join Netanyahus government.
A Likud official said Netanyahu phoned Lapid after the results and told him, We have the opportunity to do great things together.
Lapid and other centrist parties have said they would not join Netanyahus team unless the prime minister promises to make a serious push for peace with the Palestinians. The moderates also want an end to the generous subsidies and military draft exemptions given to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.
We have red lines. We wont cross those red lines, even if it will force us to sit in the opposition, said Yaakov Peri, a former security chief and one of Yesh Atids leaders, told Channel 2 TV.
The conflicting positions of the various parties point up the difficulties facing anyone who tries to set up a coalition government in Israel.
If Netanyahu relies only on the religious and hard-line parties, it means constant fights with the opposition over social programs. If he tries to team up with the centrists, it means battles with the ultra-Orthodox over subsidies, as well as internal sniping over concessions to the Palestinians.